The national team kicks off its World Cup qualifying campaign with a very tough test against Russia at the National Stadium on Wednesday night (kick-off: 20.45).
Devis Mangia’s team head into this qualifying campaign on the back of a very positive UEFA Nations League campaign which saw the team manage to finish as runners-up in their group with a record tally of nine points.
However, now the players are bracing themselves to a far much tougher test as while in the Nations League they came up against some of the European minnows such as the Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra, the World Cup qualifiers have pitted the team as some of the best sides on the continent such as Russia, quarter-finalists in the 2018 World Cup which they hosted.
“This is a new competition, a new experience,” Mangia told a news conference yesterday.
“I hope this will be another step for us to grow and I can assure everyone that we will try to do our best on the pitch and see what happens.
“In the Nations League, the team played with an identity and hopefully we can continue that. We enjoyed a lot of possession but having the ball in your feet is not enough to win a match.
“I am aware that against Russia it will be difficult to have the same control of proceedings we had in the Nations League. But what will be important is that when we are in possession we need to try and leave our mark.
“To just have the ball means nothing but we have to try and make the most of those short moments when we have the initiative in our hands and that is something I’m curious to see how my players will react.”
The build up for this World Cup qualifier inevitably was effected by the COVID-19 restrictions with the BOV Premier League suspended after the authorities halted organised sport. The Malta FA was given an exemption by the health
authorities to prepare for the match but the players have been forced to isolate in their hotel rooms and Mangia hopes it will effect his players.
“I think it can be a factor,” Mangia said.
“If one understands the concept of team sport, it is normal that it will have an effect but I don’t want to comment much on this as it’s beyond our control.
“What we can do is to try and move forward and managed to do what we can.
“As a national coach, it would have been better if my players played the last round of matches and I hope that the players will be able to play the rest all their remaining league matches till the end of the championship.”
Russia are expected to bank on the scoring prowess of their striking talisman Artem Dzyuba who is a very powerful forward with his 1.97m frame and Mangia warned his players to be very cautious when defending set plays.
“This will be a competition where it will be very important for us to do well in set-pieces situations,” Mangia said.
“Set-pieces are a very important part of the game where we also need to be able to create something from them and when we defend we have to be always ready and very focused, particularly when facing a player of the quality of Dzyuba.”
On his part, Steve Borg described Russia as a very complete team who are not only very strong from a physical point of view but they also boast players who are very good from a technical standpoint.
“I think that if you analyse the Russian team they are very strong from a physical aspect but at the same time they are blessed with great technical players, so the threats for us will be coming from all areas,” the Gżira United defender told reporters.
“Playing in the World Cup qualifiers is without doubt a step up in terms of quality from the UEFA Nations League. But it’s important for us to continue this journey that we started with the coach 12 months ago and hopefully we will be capable of getting more positive result as well as good performances.
“When you face teams like Russia you need to be 100 per cent concentrated for the whole 90 minutes, and sometimes that is not enough.
“But we have a lot of belief in ourselves. We have a team that has a great blend of young and experienced players.
“For players like Andrei Agius, Henry Bonello and myself, who know what it takes at this level, it’s our responsibility to help the younger players to approach the match with the right attitude and make sure they express their best football.”