Maltese football fans woke up on Wednesday with a big smile on their faces after the national team secured a dramatic 1-0 win over Latvia at the Daugavas Stadium in Riga to finally record their first-ever victory in the UEFA Nations League.
Steve Borg prodded home the winner in the sixth minute of stoppage time to hand Malta a merited win but more importantly, further rubberstamp the significant progress the national team has been showing since Devis Mangia took over the job as national teams head coach.
“I am really happy for my players, the coaching staff and the association,” Mangia said in his post-match press-conference.
“I think we deserved this result for all the hard work everyone in our set up has put in since we started back in July. The players have been excellent today and their positive attitude and determination was rewarded with an injury time winner and they fully deserved it.”
Since the former Italy U-21 coach took charge of the team there has been a significant change in the approach from our national team players during matches.
Gone are the days when we saw our national team heading into the match with a defensive approach, in particular against teams who are not considered among the elite.
Under Mangia, Malta is trying to play constructive and attacking football and that is mirrored when seeing the team playing the ball from the back with slick passing play and trying to dictate the tempo the match.
This approach has inevitably yielded a significant improvement in match statistics as in the last four internationals, against Latvia (1-1), Gibraltar (2-0), Andorra (0-0) and Latvia (1-0) the national team has recorded a superior possession rate than their opponents, something never achieved before.
The win against Latvia was also the fourth match that the team has managed a clean sheet, a feat which was last achieved 20 years ago.
The willingness of playing more positively has also helped the team from a defensive point of view. In fact, with the national side pushing more men forward and creating more scoring opportunities has inevitably eased the pressure on our defence while our high pressing approach has enabled us to have more control of the game.
The win in Latvia has increased Malta’s positive streak to four matches, a first after 18 years.
With home matches against Andorra and the Faroe Islands to come next months, there is a growing optimism that our national team, who are currently second in League D Group 1 with five points, can attain its best ever finish in a UEFA Nations League group after placing bottom in the 2019 edition.
While the win against Latvia has injected a feel-good factor in the Malta clan, Mangia tried to play down any talk of a new dawn for Maltese football and said that there was still a lot of work still to be done.
“It was a great night for us but we need to keep our feet rooted to the ground as there is still a lot of work still to be done,” the former Palermo and Ascoli coach said.
“We have only been working with the players for just over three months and we are just at the start of a long-term project.
“There are still many areas that we need to improve. While we are enjoying a lot of possession sometimes we struggle to create chances or finish them off and that is one area that we need to improve.
“It’s important to remember that there will be times in the near future where negative results will come so we need to pull up our socks and continue to work hard.”
The national team has still vast room of improvement. While the team is starting to dictate more play, the match against Andorra showed our limitations in breaking down teams who are defending in block.
Added to that there is still work to do when playing the ball from the back as poor passing could have cost us dear in our last two matches against Andorra and Latvia.
Malta coach Mangia is now hopeful that Tuesday’s triumph against Latvia will inject some much needed self-belief in the Maltese players as they look to take another step forward in their final Nations League matches against Andorra and the Faroe Islands next month.
“I hope that this win will will help my players to start believing more in themselves,” Mangia said.
“We are still in the initial stage of a long-term project and certainly today’s win is another step in the right direction.
“I am sure that this victory will be of great benefit for all our players and will give them the confidence to approach our next challenges with more self-belief which is crucial to secure more positive results.”