Devis Mangia picked up his first point as Malta national coach after seeing his charges hold Latvia to a 1-1 draw at the National Stadium.
After suffering a last-gasp defeat to the Faroes Islands in their opening UEFA Nations League match, Mangia had said that he was curious to see the response of his players against arguably the strongest team in the group.
And the Maltese players didn’t disappoint the Malta coach with a resilient display which with a little more caution could have easily yielded them a first win.
In fact, after taking a deserved lead through an opportunistic strike from Kyrian Nwoko, the Maltese were again let down by some poor defending as their troubles in defending set-pieces was again laid bare by the Latvians equalizer from a corner action which saw Matthew Guillaumier inadvertently deviating the ball into his own net.
But for the rest of the match, the Maltese managed to keep at bay the Latvians even though the team seemed to struggle when it came to pushing forward. That was evident as the players, who for many of them this was only their second competitive match of the season, seemed to be playing on a low tank and lacked the required freshness to go on and push for a winner.
Still, Mangia should be pleased with his players’ efforts and certainly has a good base to build ahead of October’s next two qualifiers away to Andorra and Latvia where he will hope to finally pick up his first win in this campaign.
Mangia made two changes from the team that lost to the Faroe Islands 3-2 in Torshavn on Thursday. Skipper Andrei Agius was omitted from the starting formation, in all probability as he was not fully fit, paving the way for Enrico Pepe to be handed his debut. Teddy Teuma was also handed his first-ever start for Malta as the French-born midfielder replaced Steve Pisani who dropped to the bench.
Dainis Kazakevics, the Latvia coach, effected two changes from the team that drew against Andorra. Striker Vladislavs Gutkovskis was ruled out with suspension after his red card on Thursday and was replaced by Raimonds Krollis while Alvin Jaunzems was preferred to Vladislavs Fjodorovs.
Malta created a half chance after five minutes when Joseph Mbong powered his way into the area and picked Kyrian Nwoko who scuffed his shot wide.
The hosts were unlucky not to take the lead on six minutes when Ryan Camenzuli profited from an indecision by the Latvian defenders and hit a rasping low drive that came off the upright.
Latvia responded on 14 minutes when Janis Ikaunieks broke free on the right and picked up Arturs Zjuzins who shot straight into the hands of Henry Bonello.
It was Malta who struck on 15 minutes and it was all down to Joseph Mbong’s pace and power as the Ħamrun winger flashed past Raivis Jurkovskis and quickly fed the unmarked Kyrian Nwoko who stabbed home.
Latvia immediately pushed forward in search of an equaliser and on 22 minutes Ikaunieks fed Zjuzins whose shot on the turn was cleared to a corner by Zach Muscat.
From the resultant flag-kick, the Malta defence failed to clear Ikaunieks’ cross with the ball hitting Matthew Guillaumier before finishing into the back of the net.
The goal changed the complexion of the first half with the Latvians enjoying the majority of the possession with Maltese tried to hit on the break.
Nine minutes from the break, Raimonds Krollis burst inside the are but with Bonello only to beat was denied by the Malta no.1.
From the restart, Teuma started a swift break which saw him serve Luke Gambin who hit a swerving shot that was pushed away by Steinbors.
After the break, there was little to separate from either side with Mangia looking to add more power to his team’s forward line when he withdrew Degabriele and roped in Jake Grech.
It was Latvia who came close on 69 minutes from the excellent Jaunis Ikaunieks who stormed inside the area but blasted wide.
One major cause of concern for Mangia in this juncture was the fact that the Maltese were struggling to take some control of the math with the result that they were forced to chase their opponents for long stretches.
Malta finally came close on 73 minutes when Teuma picked Nwoko on the edge of the area but the Valletta striker fired wide.
That was virtually the last chance of the match as for the remaining minutes neither side came close and had to settle for a point each.