Malta was gripped with a sense of euphoria on Wednesday night after the national team claimed their first-ever home win in a World Cup qualifier when they brushed aside Cyprus in a Group H match at the National Stadium.
Devis Mangia was visibly elated with the performance of his players and said that Wednesday’s result is another step forward.
However, few could have anticipated such a clear-cut victory for the national team against a Cypriot side who are more quoted at world level.
In fact, there are 78 ranking places between Cyprus and Malta. While Cyprus are in the top 100 at 99th, Malta are lying 177th in the 210-team FIFA rankings.
Heading into Wednesday’s game, Cyprus had scored four points in their first three outings after holding Euro 2020 participants Slovakia to a 0-0 draw and beating Slovenia 1-0. Against the 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia, they lost to a single Mario Pasalic goal midway through the second half.
The Maltese were bottom of the group with just a single point following a 2-2 draw in Slovakia, meaning that Cyprus were tipped as favourites to claim the spoils in Ta’ Qali.
All this continues to highlight the importance of Malta’s win over Cyprus – the first victory against the Cypriot side since their first-ever meeting in 1988.
Since Mangia took over 18 months ago, the Maltese public is getting used to positive analysis of Malta’s performances at international level. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate or take for granted what this group of players is doing.
As things stand, Malta have moved fifth in the six-team Group H standings with four points. There is just a three-point difference across all teams with Croatia and Russia joint-leaders on seven points.
Malta’s opponents on Saturday, Slovenia, are also on four points after their 1-1 stalemate with Slovakia which makes this tie a very intriguing one.
“Saturday’s game becomes the most important match for us at this point,” Mangia told a news conference.
“After the win against Cyprus, we deserve to celebrate a bit as the players did a very good job.
It was not straightforward, in the opening minutes of the game we committed some technical mistakes and at the same time they were pressing as mid-block but I must congratulate my players on how they managed to weather the storm and start imposing their game. No doubt, this game was another important step forward for this team.”
Asked about whether Cyprus going down to 10 men made it easier for Malta, Mangia pointed out that sometimes having numerical advantage makes the task even more difficult.
“The players were good enough to exploit Cyprus’ difficulties, putting up a very good performance especially in the second half,” Mangia said.
Dreaming of booking a berth at Qatar 2022? Maybe not. But this team is daring to dream and is pushing boundaries game after game.
After all, the Cyprus victory meant that Malta has recorded its first ever three points in a World Cup qualifier on home soil. The only two wins that the Maltese side registered in this competition were in Estonia (1993) and in Armenia (2013), both with an identical 1-0 scoreline.
In this Group H, Malta is the team who scored the most goals (6), alongside Russia. Mangia has now matched Malta’s record of goals in a World Cup qualifying campaign, set en route to the 1986 edition.
While the Italian tactician is on the brink of setting a new goals record, he is also closing in on setting a new record of points in a qualification campaign as Malta is now one point shy of the five-point haul set during the Euro 2008 qualification.
“We have to remain confident in every game,” Mangia said.
“We know that all games are difficult but we have to have the right approach and although the rankings show a lot of discrepancy between us and the others, we have to continue to do our job.”
The Cyprus games were listed as ‘must win’ as soon as the draws were done and Mangia pointed out, in fact, that this result was a reflection of the long-term project behind the scenes.
Mangia also underlined the importance of giving the young players more playing time as the average age of the Maltese team continues to drop.
For Saturday’s game, Mangia might affect some changes, pending players’ fitness and fatigue, but the Italian coach is confident that whoever plays will respond well to his tactical plan.
The return of the fans for a national team game was welcomed by Mangia as he heaped praise on their support and the backing they gave to his players throughout the game.
“We have to perform for our fans and try to put out best possible display in front of them,” Mangia said.
“If we perform well, the result will be a consequence of that but at the end of the day I want the players to be proud of playing for this national team.”
The Italian coach insisted that if the country wants to move forward in football, the backing of all stakeholders including government and authorities is crucial to make another step forward.