(after extra-time; 90 mins 2-2)
I. Kone, F. Apap, K. Shaw, G. Llerena (53 D. Vella), J. Grech, J. Degabriele, Z. Grech (Thaylor), J. Vitor, A. Agius, G. Artiles, A. Diakite (90 Y. Muritala).
R. Briffa, I. Bozovic, S. Arab, P. Fenech, A. Torres, C. Ndinga (119 M. Grima), A. Satariano, N. Braunovic, M. Raso, Matheus (90 B. Mladenovic) (119 B. Hili), A. Andreijic.
Referee Ishmael Barbara.
Yellow cards Andreijic, Apap, Braunovic, Torres, Vella, Muritala.
Missed penalty: Kaljevic (B) 70.
Red card: Shaw (H) 100.
Player of the match: Angel Torres (Balzan).
Balzan are back in European football after a four-year absence after they fended off the challenge of rivals Hibernians in a five-goal thriller at the National Stadium that proved to be a fitting finale to the 2022-23 Premier League campaign.
After Birkrikara’s triumph in Sunday’s FA Trophy final against Marsaxlokk, Balzan and Hibernians were forced to face off in this decider to decide which team will finish in fourth place and take the final spot in this summer’s UEFA Conference League qualifiers.
After a cagey start to the match, this clash turned out to be a real thriller with Matheus giving Balzan the lead at the break, but Hibs fought back and Dunstan Vella levelled matters midway through the second half.
Angel Torres then came to the fore for Balzan as his surging runs created all sorts of problems for Hibs and the Colombian seemed to have given them the win when scoring the second goal on 89 minutes.
But Hibs had other plans and Jurgen Degabriele forced extra-time with arguably the last kick of the match.
However, Balzan netted what proved to be the winner with the first kick of extra-time through substitute Bogdan Mladenovic and Hibs’ hopes were extinguished with the dismissal of Kurt Shaw as Balzan administered their lead.
For Balzan, this was a huge achievement, particularly when one considers that the club is coming from two seasons where they were fighting against relegation but next summer Oliver Spiteri will lead the team in the UEFA Conference qualifiers along with Birkirkara and Gżira United.
Prior to kick-off, the Hibernians clan presented a memento to team captain Andrei Agius who was making his final appearance with the Paolites before hanging up his boots at the end of the season.
Balzan enjoyed the better start of the match as the speed of their forwards Matheus, Alex Satariano and Angel Torres was keeping the Hibs defence continuously in apprehension.
On 11 minutes Alex Satariano pounced on a poor touch from Ali Diakhite and the Malta striker hit a rasping cross-shot across the face of goal but there were no takers to the relief of goalkeeper Ibrahim Kone.
Scoring chances remained few and far between with Balzan continuing to hold much of the initiative with Hibernians trying to hit their opponents with quick transitions.
In fact, we had to wait until the half hour for the next chance when Satariano picked up a short rebound but his volley flashed wide.
Balzan created the best chance so far nine minutes from the break with a slick move that started from just outside their area, with some quick passing seeing Paul Fenech releasing Torres clear on the right and the Colombian winger made space just outside the area but his curling drive finishing just wide.
The Reds efforts were finally rewarded in the first minute of stoppage time.
From an Aleksa Andreijic corner kick, Momcilo Raso headed the ball into the path of Matheus who had little difficulty in heading the ball past Kone.
Hibs needed a change of pace in their play and seven minutes into the second half coach Silvio Vella roped in Dunstan Vella and Thaylor in lieu of Gonzalo Llerena and Zachary Grech.
Instead, it was Balzan who almost made it 2-0 on 56 minutes when Ndinga played in Torres who turned past his marker and opted to shoot with his effort blocked by Kone.
The Reds continue to threaten and on 65 minutes, Satariano dashed inside the area but blasted the ball wide.
Balzan’s profligacy came back to haunt them a minute later as Hibs equalised.
The goal was manufactured by the two Hibs substitutes as Thaylor made space for himself on the right and his cross was turned home by Dunstan Vella.
The goal seemed to have galvanised Hibernians who started to be more of a threat.
However, 16 minutes from time, Balzan had another glorious chance to regain the lead. Kaljevic, who had just replaced Andreijic, was brought down inside the area from Kone with the referee pointing to the spot.
But from the spot, Kaljevic saw his shot saved by the Guinea goalkeeper.
Three minutes later, Balzan protested for another penalty when Torres dispossessed Agius and sped inside the area before going down following a challenge by the former Malta defender but the referee waved play on, even though TV replays suggested otherwise.
Torres continue to torment the Hibs defence as a minute later he moved past three opponents but was anticipated by the onrushing Kone.
Hibs had a great chance to win it three minutes from time when Joao Vitor sped inside the area and cut the ball back into the path of the unmarked Degabriele who, however, fired over.
This time, it was Hibs who were made to pay as Balzan scored soon after.
It was Torres who produced the winning run when he sped past two defenders and beat Kone with an angled drive.
But the drama was not finished yet as straight from kick-off, Jake Grech’s cross was nodded by Apap into the path of Degabriele who sent the ball past the onrushing Rudy Briffa to send the game into extra-time.
Goals kept flowing with Balzan going back in front in their first attack.
Substitute Bogdan Mladenovic made the most of being given space on the left to surge inside the area and hit a low drive that came off the upright before finishing beyond the goalline.
Hibs could have levelled matters again on 83 minutes when Thaylor found the unmarked Joao Vitor but the Paolites forward incredibly fired wide.
On 97 minutes, Hibs protested for a penalty when Degabriele’s pass looked to have hit the arm of Bozovic but the referee waved play on.
From the resultant corner, taken by Artiles, Briffa produced a fine one-handed save to keep out Apap’s downward header.
Things got worse for Hibs on 100 minutes when Kurt Shaw was shown a straight red card when he upended the goalbound Torres on the edge of the area to continue the match with ten men.
Mladenovic came close again on 106 minutes but this time his shot from the edge of the area finished just wide.
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