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Russians take spoils but Malta players show encouraging signs

Artem Dzyuba (centre) scores Russia's opening goal against Malta. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

MALTA            1

Mbong 56

RUSSIA            3

Dzyuba 23

Fernandes 35

Sobolev 89

MALTA

H. Bonello, K. Shaw, R. Camenzuli (86 J. Corbalan), S. Borg, M. Guillaumier, J. Mbong, L. Montebello (46 A. Satariano), A. Agius (88 K. Nwoko), T. Teuma, J. Degabriele (46 P. Mbong), B. Kristensen (74 S. Pisani).

RUSSIA

A. Shunin, M. Fernandes, V. Karavaev, A. Semenov, I. Akhmetov, D. Fomin (57 A. Miranchuk), G. Dzhikiya, A. Golovin, A. Ionov (57 R. Zhemaletdinov), A. Dzyuba (82 A. Sobolev), D. Kuzyaev (77 A. Mostovoi).

Referee Peter Kjaersgaard (Denmark FA).

Yellow cards Zhemaletdinov, Corbalan.

Russia scored two goals midway through the first half that propelled them to a hard-fought victory over a battling Malta side in their opening World Cup qualifier at the National Stadium on Wednesday night.

The Russians may have returned home with the three points in the bag, however, it was the Maltese players who earned all the plaudits with a combative display that surely has further rubberstamped the belief that our national team is growing in stature on the international scene.

In fact, Devis Mangia’s men took the field with a very positive mindset right from kick-off as the team continued where they left off following their bright showings in the UEFA Nations League trying to push forward each time they were in possession.

The only blemish in their first-half display where two moments of hesitancy in defence that paved the way for the Russians to build a two-goal lead through the prolific Artem Dzyuba and Mario Fernandes.

But instead of throwing in the towel and resorting to defensive tactics to try and limit the damage Mangia urged his players to continue to push forward and on the restart we saw a team who stepped up their efforts to get themselves back into the match.

In fact, their efforts were rewarded with a fine strike from Joseph Mbong early on and with a little bit more luck the team could have snatched a point, particularly through the excellent Teddy Teuma who saw his thumping drive just miss the upright.

But it was not to be as the Russians went on to clinch a third goal to seal their win.

Despite the defeat, the team’s performance will certainly give further hope to the Maltese fans ahead of Saturday’s trip in Slovakia as this team is showing signs that they are capable of being competitive on the international scene – something which everyone craved for so many years.

Malta coach Devis Mangia made one change from the team drew against the Faroe Islands in their final UEFA Nations League match as Bjorn Kristensen was given the nod to start in midfield at the expense of Luke Gambin, who has not fully recovered from a niggling injury and was named among the substitutes.

Stanislav Cherchesov, the Russia coach, named Monaco attacking midfielder Aleksandar Golovin and Yuri Zhirkov, the former Chelsea wingback in his starting formation despite the fact that their star duo only joined their team-mates this week.

The opening stages were very encouraging for Malta as the team looked well organised at the back but at the same time were keen to push forward.

In fact, on nine minutes Jurgen Degabriele did well to exchange the ball with Luke Montebello and the Hibs forward burst into the area and his cross was somehow cleared by the Russian defence.

Seven minutes later, Teuma picked Mbong on the right flank and the Ħamrun wingback cut to the inside but his low drive was easily saved by goalkeeper Anton Shunin.

However, it was Russia who drew first blood after 23 minutes when Aleksei Ionov fed Golovin on the edge of the area and the Monaco midfielder sent a throughball towards Dzyuba who cooly slotted past Henry Bonello.

 The Malta no. 1 had to be alert three minutes later to push away a firm shot from Daler Kuzyaev.

Gradually, Malta started to regain their composure and on the half-hour, Teuma saw his shot from the distance blocked by Shushin.

However, it was Dzyuba who almost struck again on 32 minutes, but the Zenit SP striker headed the ball just over from close in following a Vyacheslav Karavaev cross.

The Russians were continuously punishing any lapses in concentration from the Maltese defenders and on 35 minutes Dzyuba profited from Shaw’s failure to clear the ball away and quickly released Fernandes who beat Bonello with a low drive.

Malta were lucky to avoid a third goal on the stroke of half-time when Golovin stole possession on the edge of the area, burst through but saw his shot cleared off the line by Steve Borg.

On the restart, Mangia made two changes as he withdrew Montebello and Degabriele and brought on Alex Satariano and Paul Mbong.

Despite being two goals down, the Maltese kept their positive approach and their efforts were rewarded 11 minutes into the second half when the hosts pulled a goal back.

Joseph Mbong raced clear inside the area and despite being in an angle position he let fly a thumping drive that gave no chance to Shushin.

Russia tried to respond and on 65 minutes Fernandes raced past Joseph Mbong but luckily for the hosts his low cross found no takers.

Malta came close to an equaliser three minutes later when Teuma chested the ball down just outside the area and his thumping volley breezed the upright with Shusin beaten.

However, it was the Russians who clinched the third goal late on when substitute Aleksandr Sobolev who fired past Bonello to seal the three points.

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