(3-3, 4-2, 3-3, 4-2)
Alec Fenech turned out to be the unexpected hero, when he sent Valletta, alias Malta, into the second round of the LEN Challenger Cup in the most dramatic fashion at the National Pool in Tal-Qroqq.
The Neptunes player showed off his considerable skill, nerves of steel and arguably a little foolishness when 74 seconds from time, he steered the ball into the net from the tightest of angles.
The match table officials were not entirely sure whether the diagonal shot that Fenech had just curled so magnificently had delivered Valletta into the second round of the LEN Challenger Cup, an historic feat for Maltese waterpolo.
It was the Hungarian great, triple Olympic champion Tamas Molnar, who acted as LEN delegate during the tournament, who confirmed Valletta’s place in round two with the tightest goal difference: EVK Zaibas +1, Valletta 0 and Enka -1.
With the Maltese still licking their wounds from their defeat against Zaibas, the hopes of qualification were still firmly in their hands when they faced Turkish side Enka on Sunday morning.
Given the importance of finishing the campaign with a strong goal average, Valletta fired on all cylinders, scoring no less than 21 times each time against Finnish opponents Cestus and Bulgarian side Komodor.
But a win against Turkish side spearheaded by Olympic gold medallist Paulo Obradovic and Christodoulos Kolomvos, had to take the form of at least a four-goal margin.
At the beginning, balance prevailed until the first twist came with under two minutes left in the second session.
Valletta gained an edge over their opponents after the score had been locked 5-apiece. Sam Gialanzé and Jake Cachia struck a psychological blow on Enka to switch ends on 7-5. Still, this score was not enough for qualification for the Maltese side.
Valletta rode the wave of enthusiasm and started the third session with a flourish, going four goals up with Fenech and Mark Castillo, sensing for the first time that, qualification was on the cards.
Yet the intriguing tussle was maintained with Enka pulling back to just a one-goal deficit on 8-9.
There was a ray of hope when Cachia made it 10-8 before the start of the final quarter.
The final session was not for the faint-hearted.
Andreas Galea pushed Valletta four goals clear on 12-8.
Obradovic, hanging on two fouls, reduced the gap to two goals before he conceded a five-metre throw, from which Liam Galea brought the Valletta side within a goal from qualification.
Enka pressed hard to get the goals that would have put their mind at rest. The Maltese regrouped and formed a phalanx formation in front of Jake Tanti.
The San Ġiljan goalkeeper produced a smart save to deny Obradovic before Darren Zammit cleared the ball off the imaginary goal line.
This time, Valletta did not drop the baton as Fenech left himself almost no margin of error in getting the ball between the goalkeeper and the goalpost to strike gold from an angled position.
Then, Jeremy Abela worked hard to maintain possession in the centre position. When he gained possession 20 seconds from time, Milan Cirovic called a time out to give his side a breather. At this point, it was evident that the mission was accomplished.
This game was a credit to local waterpolo and the ASA’s efforts to inject new blood in the national team.
ASA president Karl Izzo admitted that this qualification was beyond the association’s wildest dreams. He said that there are some promising new faces that are knocking on the door of the senior team.
Cirovic, the Malta coach provided the real value of this qualification. “Our homegrown players have put their hearts upon their sleeves today,” he said.
“It was not easy to play on a Sunday morning but I told the boys that we had to give it our all, so we will have no complaints after the match”.
VALLETTA: J. Tanti, J. Cachia 2, A. Galea 1, M. Castillo 4, S. Gialanze 1, B. Cachia, L. Galea 2, J. Abela 1, N. Zammit, A. Fenech 3, D. Zammit, N. Bugelli, N. Grixti.
ENKA: B. Banda, N. Ozbek 1, S. Can, C. Ozbakis 1, T. Ergin 3, B. Alkan, E. Yenigun, M. Yutmaz, H. Duzenli 1, C. Kolomvos 2, E. Kahraman, P. Obradovic 2.
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