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Ħamrun, Birkirkara face testing start in challenging Premier League

Ħamrun Spartans open their Premier League title defence against Balzan on Saturday. Photo: Domenic Aquilina

After months of preparation, the 2023-24 Premier League season gets under way when Marsaxlokk take on newly-promoted Naxxar Lions at the Centenary Stadium on Friday evening (kick-off: 7pm).

This year’s championship is set to be one of transition as the Malta Premier League is planning to take charge of the organisation of the elite championship as from the 2024-25 season.

For the 14 teams taking part in this year’s Premier League there will be far bigger challenges than previous campaign due to a change in format as of next season.

In fact, this season four teams will lose their status in the top-flight and that has inevitably forced all teams in the division to embark on a hectic transfer campaign in a bid to arrive for the first day of the season equipped with a competitive squad.

Match Day One is set to offer some intriguing clashes with champions Ħamrun Spartans set for tricky start to their title defence when they take on Balzan tomorrow.

The Spartans will be bidding to maintain their grip at the top of Maltese football after another successful summer in UEFA club competitions which saw the team reach the third qualifying round of the UEFA Conference League before being eliminated by Hungarian giants Ferencvaros.

Coach Luciano Zauri will now hope the Reds can express their best football in the domestic competitions but face a testing start to their campaign against a Balzan side who turned out to be the surprise package of last season after securing a place in European football this summer.

The Reds, under the charge of Oliver Spiteri, may have lost their star player Angel Torres, who moved to Australian side Central Coast Mariners, but have continued to strengthen their squad with some quality signings such as Malta internationals Triston Caruana and Jake Grech among others and are expected to again be among the challengers for at least a top-four placing this season.

Birkirkara, after their success in the FA Trophy last May, are looking to put on a stronger challenge for the title and face a tough start to their season when they face Sliema Wanderers.

The Blues will be keen to prove that they are ready to re-establish themselves among the top guns of Maltese football after promotion from the Challenge League.

Giovanni Tedesco, the Birkirkara coach, has brought in a blend of youth and experience in his squad with Malta international Alex Satariano bolstering the team’s forward line along with Maxuell Maia, formerly of Gżira United, while also luring wing back Enmy Pena Beltre, formerly of Valletta FC.

Sliema Wanderers are back in the top-flight after an absence of one season and the Blues, under the charge of Paul Zammit, are determined to make their presence felt.

The Blues have kept the bulk of the players that helped them win promotion to the Premier League and brought in some quality signings such as Jean Borg, who last season played in Italy, and former Gudja United forwards Vito Plut and Samuel Gomes.

Gżira test

Hibernians will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2022-23 season which saw the Paola club not only miss out on major domestic honours but also fail to qualify for European football when they open their campaign against Gżira United.

The Paolites have decided to turn to their former coach and player Branko Nisevic in a bid to put them back among the protagonists this season.

Nisevic, who last season led Ħamrun Spartans to the Premier League title with a record advantage of points at the top, has lost two key players in Jake Grech and Dunstan Vella who sought pastures new but has brought back to the club midfielders Johann Bezzina and Ayrton Attard.

The Paolites have brought in some tried and tested foreign players such as Claudio Bonanni, formerly of Birkirkara and Marsaxlokk, Binu Bairam (ex-Sta Lucia) and Samuel Okoh (Pieta Hotspurs) as well as some new faces such as Alex Bruno and Eriks Santos who are in their first experience in Malta.

On the other hand, Gżira United have lost several key players from last season as the club decided to lower the operational budget for the season but still, the club managed an impressive campaign in Europe with coach Darren Abdilla steering the team to the third qualifying round of the Conference League.

However, it remains to be seen whether the Maroons will have the necessary strength in depth to navigate to what promises to be a very challenging season.

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