by Alex Vella
Neptunes 13 – Sliema 11
(4-4, 3-3, 4-1, 2-3)
There was no doubt about it. Neptunes Emirates deserved the title of champions this season, their 20th success and the fourth in the last six years. It must be remembered that our resilient lads also carried off the Knock-Out and the President’s Cup this summer. We were the most consistent side from start to finish despite two blips when Sliema, our opponents in the final, lowered our colours twice in the play-offs.
It was an exceptional finale with the five-match series drawing crowds never seen before at the National Pool. The Reds’ victory was the climax of a mega season and in the words of our president Matthew Bonello, who has been at the helm for the last six years, “all the praise must go to the boys for a great victory in a very tough season.”
This was another ‘first’ when we carried off the newly-conceived league extended with the play-offs. We had also won the cup midway through the season when we were again the first team to win this competition in a new format. It was also the seventh victory against Sliema out of nine matches, two of which were real routs as we overran Sliema 18-9 and 15-9, the first being the biggest ever margin of victory between the two sides.
In yesterday’s match we had to overcome the psychological drawback of having been defeated against the Blues in our last match. Moreover, the boys also succeeded in wiping off another mental handicap of having to deploy the inexperienced Ryan Sciortino in goal in lieu of the injured Ian Bugeja who had to cry off at the very last moments as he was injured dring the warm-up. Sciortino acquitted himself very well in the circumstances.
Otherwise, our team presented a standard formation, including Brian Buhagiar back in the side for the last three games after injury.
Sliema were unable to bank on the usual John Soler to provide the goals and had little to show in their repertoire except flashes of reaction midway through the proceedings and in the last session.
Nevertheless, Sliema are to be commended for giving their share in making it a memorable climax to the season.
Eight goals were shared in a combative first session which had the Blues player Mark Meli annulling Steve Camilleri’s (he totalled a staggering 97 goals this season) two goals for the Reds.
The Balluta Bay team twice edged ahead through Niki Lanzon and Michele Stellini, with Daniel Paolella levelling matters each time.
It was again a ding-dong affair in the second quarter with Neptunes twice taking the lead through Vladimir Gojkovic – what a player..! – and Steve Camilleri, and Sliema equalising through Raymund Fodor and Bogdan Rath, before the Hungarian put Sliema ahead 7-6 for the first and only time.
However, Michele Stellini levelled matters. The battle hinged on both goalkeepers’ ability to pull off vital saves. The ability of a player netting an exquisite goal was also not to be discounted.
Gojkovic showed these masterful qualities with some vintage goals, two of which came in the third session, with Lanzon and Tamas Molnar scoring the others. Incidentally, both these players and Steve Camilleri kept their goal-per-match league record this season intact
Our team led 11-7 lead before Paul Privitera reduced the arrears late in that penultimate session.
Although we somehow administered our advantage, we were aware of Sliema’s recuperative powers. Guided by the astute Gojkovic, the team summoned all their expertise to stifle the opponents’ final charge to save the game.
The last session ended in Sliema’s favour by three goals to two but that was not enough as our numerous fans went wild with jubilation at the final buzzer.
The match, surely rated as ‘difficult’, was admirably controlled by both referees, Ivan Sciriha and Maurizio De Chiara.
Before BOV chief officer Peter Perotti presented the cup to captain Niki Lanzon, who incidentally had a great season, the pool deck was full of rejoicing Neptunes fans. The carcade, with the players on an open bus followed, with the colourful celebrations at the club premises continuing till late to make it a real memorable day for our beloved boys.
Man-up statistics: Neptunes – three on seven; Sliema – five on eight.
Neptunes: I. Bugeja, N. Lanzon 2, E. Aquilina, M. Stellini 2, J. Camilleri, B. Lanzon, S. Camilleri 4, V. Gojkovic 3, B. Buhagiar, S. Gravina, R. Sciortino, T. Molnar 2, M. Pisani.
Sliema: R. Coleiro, J. Gabaretta, N. Lubrano, R. Fodor 2, M. Meli 3, J. Soler, D. Paolella 2, M. Rizzo, C. Debono, P. Privitera 2, B. Rath 2, J. Spiteri Staines, D. Abela.
Refs: I. Sciriha, M. De Chiara.