The Malta U-21 national team will make their first appearance in the 2023 UEFA European Championship qualifiers when they host Northern Ireland in a Group C match at the Centenary Stadium on Friday (kick-off: 4.30pm).
The match will be a competitive debut for Malta U-21 coach Gilbert Agius who was handed the job last March when he replaced Silvio Vella.
Agius has already been in charge of the team in June when he led his players to a training camp in Slovenia when they faced Qatar and Bosnia Herzegovina in friendly matches.
But the real business starts this afternoon when they take on Northern Ireland, one of five teams who form part of Group C along with Spain, Slovakia, Lithuania and Russia.
Speaking on the eve of the match, Agius said he’s eager to find out what is the level of the team.
“This is our first real test and the match against Northern Ireland will be the perfect opportunity to gauge how competitive our team is,” Agius said.
“At the moment, we have 12 players who are in our squad for the first time and have never had a taste of a competitive match at U-21 level. I am pleased with the commitment shown by these players as it’s not easy for them to adapt to a unified game philosophy in a short span of time.
“Since we convened early last week, the team’s technical staff and I had the possibility to notice if the boys are following all instructions yielded to them, now it’s up to them to maintain this spirit during training and embrace the method of football we are trying to instil in them.
“I am pleased to see my players showing desire to further pursue their footballing career, keep learning, all mindful they are only one step away from the national team.
“At the end of the day, our ultimate aim is to make sure that these players are ready to perform once the national team call-up arrives.”
Northern Ireland are familiar opponents for Malta as they were already paired with them in the last UEFA competition. The first match in Antrim ended in a goalless draw before the Northern Ireland side emerged 2-0 winners at the Centenary Stadium.
Agius has no doubt that Northern Ireland will be tough opponents today.
“They still have five players from previous competition. If you look at their squad you find players who are on the books of teams like Manchester United and Leeds United and that shows their quality.
“Since the 0-0 draw in Antrim in September 2019 they have changed three coaches and no doubt their game will be based on their physical prowess which is typical of British sides.”
Agius said that his ultimate goal for this qualifying competition is to try and produce a few players for the national team.
“If in every competition we will be able to produce three to four players for the national team then our aim is complete,” Agius said.
“We have to ensure that my players get more experience at this level, keep developing and make themselves ready for the next step up. I believe in this group of players, there is talent around my squad, but they need more playing time.
“There is a tremendous gap between training hard and playing, training hard is not enough, my players need to taste more regularly the intensity of the 90 minutes also at club level. Our aim is to put good performances on a consistent level, and I am sure results will follow.”