Last season's Maltese Premier League went down to a historic play-off and 2013/14 is expected to be just as tight, with Birkirkara FC, Hibernians FC and Valletta FC leading the field.
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Last season's Maltese Premier League title was eventually decided by a historic play-off and many are predicting 2013/14 will be just as tight. Champions Birkirkara FC and the Hibernians FC side that pushed them so close are likely to go toe to toe again, but Valletta FC cannot be discounted either. UEFA.com correspondent Domenic Aquilina assesses the leading teams.
The Stripes are hot favourites to defend their crown but coach Paul Zammit is aware the transition from hunters to hunted poses new problems. "Our main objective has always been to reach the very top but staying there can be more difficult," he said. His troops began well enough, beating Hibernians 3-2 in the Maltese Super Cup, but the impending loss of homeward-bound Serbian defender Nikola Vukanac represents a blow.
Birkirkara have not rested on their laurels, strengthening the forward line with the capture of Valletta's Demba Touré and, perhaps most excitingly, Frank Temile from FC Dynamo Kyiv. They kick off against Rabat Ajax FC on Saturday though there is a sense their campaign will really start on 22 September when they take on Hibernians.
Hibernians were so near yet so far in May, losing the title decider 3-1 after the sides finished the season level on points at the summit. With goal difference counting for nothing, for the first time in 41 years the championship race went to a 'cup final' play-off at Ta' Qali National Stadium. When they lost that, not even success in the Maltese Cup could save coach Michael Woods, who made way for Branko Nisevic.
The playing squad remains largely unchanged, meaning Mario Muscat will once more provide a reassuring presence as last line of defence. "I predict another interesting season between Birkirkara, Hibernians, Valletta and maybe Sliema. Our objective is to finally get over the line after being so unlucky over the past two seasons. Lifting the title matters most, I believe we can make it and we start on Sunday – my 37th birthday."
Despite their relative failure last term, Valletta have kept faith with boss Mark Miller. Italian goalkeeper Pietro Marino has arrived from Serie B outfit Reggina Calcio, the pick of the summer signings, and defender Ian Azzopardi says the team are eager to draw a line under 2012/13. "We just want to forget last season and make amends," he said. "I am sure we can be strong title contenders, as we showed in doing so well in the UEFA Europa League first and second qualifying rounds."
Sliema Wanderers FC welcome back Trevor Cilia from a one-year loan at Floriana FC and will hope Nigerian striker Nka Ohawuchi picks up where he left off in May. Last season's 22-goal leading marksman José Luis Armario Negrin has joined top-six chasing Balzan Youths FC from Rabat Ajax, who appear set to tussle with promoted Naxxar Lions FC and Vittoriosa Stars FC to avoid the drop. Floriana begin at the foot of the table after a six-point deduction. Last year's surprise package Qormi FC have appointed Italian coach Tommasso Volpi who takes charge of a side now featuring Enoch Barwuah, younger brother of Mario Balotelli.