Malta’s first part of the Qatar World Cup qualifications finished with a cruel 3-0 defeat at the hands of Croatia.
A loss that does not do justice for Malta’s plucky display in Rijeka but at the same time, there is no shame in losing to the 2018 World Cup finalists and one of the favourites to top next summer’s Euro 2020 championship.
Croatia had to bank on the entrance of big guns Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic to break down Malta’s resilience who for an hour were holding the Croatians to a stalemate.
Per transfermarkt, Malta’s overall value is of 6 million euros – less than any single Croatian player with the starting forward Ante Budimir, now at La Liga’s Osasuna, costing at least 7 million.
It was Malta’s third game in a span of seven days which had also seen Mangia’s team hosting one of the group favourites Russia at home before travelling to 34th-ranked nation Slovakia, grinding out a famous 2-2 draw in Trnava.
Fatigue was clearly visible as the game in Croatia wore on but it was a brave showing from the Maltese players and it sheds light on the big improvement that has been made in the last 11 games.
Asked if this team is just overperforming or if he is managing to help the players in fulfilling their potential, coach Devis Mangia heaped praise on the commitment that the players have shown so far under his guidance and explained that these performances are just the fruition of their hard work.
“We are growing and we can continue to develop in the next games,” Mangia said during the post-game press conference.
“The players are learning through experience and this means taking positives from mistakes and defeats as well.
“This is a young group, hence we can only improve.”
Keeping the players motivated and as fit as possible through proper recovery takes a big toll on the technical staff, so one has to appreciate their efforts during this international break.
Staying in a bubble for over a fortnight, with all coronavirus restrictions while preparing for three high-profile games is not as easy it seems.
Heading into this triple-header, the expectations for at least a point were not high but after Malta’s performances, there is the feeling that we could have even snatched extra points – a draw against Russia and a win against Slovakia.
But this is not an issue of ifs, this is an issue of finally having a national team with a clear football identity that has rekindled the enthusiasm and support of the general public towards this group of players.
“It was a good international window for us at the end of the day,” Mangia explained.
“Right now, it is not about the results but it is about imposing our game plan and giving further chance to many young players in this team.
“We have a lot of players born between 1997 and 2001 and that is a big plus for us, because we can work long-term with them.”
Pool of players
In addition, the introduction of experienced faces like Enrico Pepe – with over 100 Premier League games – has injected more solidity into the team while expanding the pool of quality players. The Birkirkara player replaced defender Andrei Agius in the Slovakia and Croatia matches after the Hibernians defender had captained Malta against Russia.
“There is no particular reason why Andrei Agius was not a starter after the Russia game,” Mangia said.
“We did our evaluations and we felt that other players could play and we will be doing the same evaluations heading into our next international window.”
The Croatia defeat was by no means a step backwards and actually, it could have been an unexpected step forward if only Malta were awarded a penalty for a clear handball early in the first half.
After conceding the first goal, the Maltese rarely showed any signs of collapse if not for fatigue in the closing stages. This is one of the major changes in this team as in previous eras, the national team often had these blackout moments.
Nonetheless, it makes sense to point out that recent managements have contributed in helping this team make this leap of quality.
Italian tactician Pietro Ghedin might have been criticised for his defensive-minded tactics, even against par-level opponents, but at the same time, it helped Malta to enhance the defensive concepts.
Ray Farrugia made the most of his task by injecting young blood into the side while starting to forge an idea of offensive football that while sometimes made the team look unbalanced, bringing some heavy defeats, it also meant that the Maltese coach was brave in instilling the idea of trying to attack at international level.
Coach Mangia is the hereditary of all this work and has now assembled a team that is organised, spirited and willing to score against any opponent.
Group H is probably the most topsy-turvy in this World Cup qualifications with every team losing at least one game after the opening three matches.
Slovenia inflicted Croatia their first defeat before falling to minnows Cyprus, who on the otherside held Slovakia to a draw. After being held by Cyprus and Malta, Slovakia went on to beat Russia, cancelling their opening dismal performances.
Mangia’s attention will now shift to his next international appointment.
A date against Cyprus is next, a game that can be a defining moment in this journey that has just started for this national team.