Balzan aim at doing better than last season

After finishing fourth to secure a place in the UEFA Europa Conference League last season, Balzan will be aiming at doing better than last season while putting participation in European football as their objective. Coach Oliver Spiteri was speaking during the presentation of the Balzan squad ahead of the BOV Premier League 2023/24 campaign at the Hotel Valentina, St. Julian’s on Friday.

Last season, Balzan finished joint-fourth with Hibernians and Mosta, defeating the Paolites in extra-time in a decider to secure a return to European football. However in the early part of the season, results were not coming their way.

Addressing the press conference, Oliver Spiteri said “Last season, we really worked a lot in silence without any glittering objectives. We knew that we were going out of this nutshell .. in the first round we played a lot of good games but we sometimes left the pitch empty-handed but we knew that the team was there. Basically, the turning point was in January. The players raised the hurdle and they achieved fourth place which I think was very difficult considering our position at the end of the first round.”

“We did not stop there and say that the job was done. We had a very busy May and June, especially knowing that it would not be easy to bring the players … bringing Maltese players which are of a good level and good foreigners we could afford as the budget is also very important. I think we brought what we needed and improved the squad from last year,” added the Balzan coach.

Balzan president Anton Tagliaferro congratulated coach Oliver Spiteri, sporting director Vladimir Simovic, assistant coach Jean Paul Desira and the rest of the technical staff for doing an excellent job last season, leading the team from a ninth place at the end of the first round to a fourth place finish which meant that for the first time in five years, the club was back in European football.

“After five years in a row (taking part in European competitions), we had a three-year gap but we made it back. Obviously, we are happy obviously with the outcome against Domzale … it was a very good achievement and I think that with a bit of luck (against Neman Grodno), we could have gone a step further. You live and learn. We learned from that second round and hopefully, it would keep us in good stead for future campaigns,” said Tagliaferro.

The Balzan president added that the club looked at areas where the team could improve. They lost a number of players including goalkeeper Jonathan Debono, Alexander Satariano and more recently Angel Torres.

To make up for their loss, the club signed Danilo Golovic, Andre Fausto Rodrigues Prates, Ryohei Michibuchi and Manny Aguek and thanks to sporting director Vladmir Simovic, the club managed to secure the services of Peter Ukeme Olawale and Awosanya Oluwatobiloba Dimeji on loan from Debreceni VSC and NK Domzale respectively. In the past days, Balzan also managed to sign Brazilian winger Leonardo da Silva Souza – brother of former Balzan forward Alan da Silva Souza – and Serbian forward Aleksandar Katanic.

Thirty-one year old Leonardo played for SC Matsubara in Brazil, Beerschot inBelgium, Enosis Neon Paralimniou in Cyprus, Metalurg Donetsk in Ukraine, FK Qabala in Azerbaijan, Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia, Partizan in Serbia, Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia, Al Wahda and Shabab Al Ahli in the UAE, Maringa and Cianorte in Brazil. On the other hand, twenty-eight year old Katanic played in Serbia for Radnicki Klupci, FK Loznica, Stari Banovci, Teleoptik Zemun, OFK Backa, FK Bezanija, FK Metalac and FK Mladost before a spell with FC Honka in Finland. He returned to Serbia to join Mladost GAT Novi Sad but moved to Sileks in North Macedonia in January.

From the local market, Balzan secured the services of former national team player Triston Caruana and Malta international midfielder Jake Grech. On the other hand, Gary Camilleri and Adam Bradshaw were loaned to Marsaxlokk and Santa Lucia respectively while Neil Frendo was transferred to Sliema Wanderers.

Sporting director Vladimir Simovic said that during the close season, Balzan had a very active transfer window with ten players leaving the club and ten joining.

“Thanks to the very successful cooperation between us – the president, myself as sporting director, the head coach, coaching staff and administration – last season, we started the process of rebuilding team. In January, we recognised which areas we would like to improve and which areas we would like to strengthen. Then we started scouting and there have been several changes as we signed ten new players.”

“We hope that the squad has been strengthened and the pitch will speak for itself very soon. Luckily we already had the chance to see the team play in European competitions. We cannot be not satisfied after the great result against Domzale. We all hoped we could do better against Neman Grodno but overall, it was great experience for us after three years of absence from European competitions,” added Simovic.

With regards to the departure of Angel Torres, Oliver Spiteri admitted that they were aware he would be leaving the club after their European commitments.

“Angel Torres was a very important player for us but we knew he was not going to stay after the European games. We knew that considering his level, he would move elsewhere. We started working – the three of us – to replace him, but I am optimistic because the other players will raise their hurdle to improve to get our chances to reach our objectives.”

When asked what were the club’s objectives for this coming season, the Balzan coach said “Our objective is always to win every game. Obviously it is difficult to win every game but to be among the main challengers and do better than last year. It would be presumptuous at this stage to say where Balzan could finish as one has to watch other teams. I do not believe in judging performances in friendly matches. What I can say is that we have a competitive side, a strong dressing room and quality players. But there are also other teams who have quality. When I arrived here last year, I told the president that our objective would be to finish in the top half of the table. This time, we need to aim for something better and so qualifying for European football could be one objective.”

With regards to the proposal by the Malta Premier League to change the football season to one running from February to October, coach Oliver Spiteri said this could help local clubs participating in European competitions.

“In 2007, when I was assistant to national coach Dusan Fitzel, we put forward this idea after doing a lot of research but they laughed at us, telling us we were crazy. To help teams participating in Europe, this could prove right. They used to argue that we cannot play in August but we have been training since June. If it for the good of the local game, to start in January and end in December, spreading the season over the calendar year, we have to sit around a table and find the best solution. However this could be a good option. What I really do not like is the fact that we are changing the format almost every two years. We have to decide on a format and keep it for at least ten years.”

On the other hand, Anton Tagliaferro and Vladimir Simovic said such a change would pose difficulties with regards to the transfer windows. Simovic said that in his job as sporting director, one of the biggest challenges is to attract foreign players to Maltese football and apart from other challenges, it would be much more difficult to lure players to move to Malta and then when the season is over, they would be stuck without a club in October as the transfer window would re-open in January.

Meanwhile Anton Tagliaferro announced that the Academy went through a major restructure with Robert Spiteri being appointed as the new chairman.

“I have not been totally happy with the Academy for a number of years. There are many challenges in trying to develop young Maltese players to get to a decent level. These have been very few and far in between. There is a lot of work still to be done in Maltese football to develop players to satisfactory standards.”

Tagliaferro thanked MBI Group for their sponsorship and announced that TGI Holdings – a new holding company owned by him – replaced Investors Mutual as a sponsor of the club. He also thanked Visit Malta for their support during the club’s European campaign.