When Malta faced and lost twice to Slovenia (0-1, 0-2) during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the Maltese public was quite satisfied with the result obtained against a team sitting in the top half of the FIFA rankings.
This time around though, frustration reins among the Maltese fans and the Malta national team camp as well after Devis Mangia’s side was undone by a controversial penalty in Slovenia.
In just 15 games under the guidance of coach Mangia and his technical staff, both the playing style and the mentality of the team has changed.
Twenty goals scored and 20 conceded throughout the 15 outings, which shed light on the team’s proactive behaviour on the field.
“The players were disappointed after the game and I like that attitude,” Mangia told a news conference.
“A few years ago, if you came to Slovenia and lost by a single goal you would most probably be pleased with the result and carry on.
“But things are different now and the frustration after this result is significant because it means that we are on the right track to build something important in this long-term project.”
Against Slovenia, now ranked 66th in the world and who are chasing a first qualification to a major tournament since the 2010 World Cup, Malta was not fazed by their opponents’ names or by their early pressure.
A draw would have been more just, with the game’s official statistics also highlighting the balance that reined between both sides.
Malta had 48% of the possession with 434 passes attempted, 20 less than their opponents. On the other hand, Slovenia had three shots on target whereas Malta had only one which almost stunned Jan Oblak who had to stretch his arm to deny Joseph Mbong on the goal line.
Two of those Slovenia’s shots on target were the two penalties that they were awarded, which one of them was even saved by Henry Bonello who had another inspiring performance in Ljubljana.
Asked about the penalty incident, coach Mangia did not want to delve into it but looked pretty much irritated by it.
“The penalty? It is not my competence to decide whether it was or not, but it made the difference in the game,” Mangia said.
“But while I won’t speak about the penalty, I would have loved to see the referee maybe give us more fouls in favour of us in the 50/50 duels.”
Defender Zach Muscat will surely echo his coach’s complaints after he was clearly floored by a Slovenian player during a corner-kick situation which was similar to Slovenia’s winning penalty.
As expected, Slovenia made their intentions clear from the start as they were willing to push forward in numbers in search of an early lead.
However, Mangia’s decision of deploying a defensive-minded side in order to remain cautious and keep the game alive as long as possible almost paid dividends until Slovenia’s penalty on the brink of half-time.
“All in all, we played our game and I think in the first half we were very organised and compact, even though we did some mistakes,” Mangia said.
After the change of ends, Malta was more offensive thanks to the introductions of Ryan Camenzuli, Paul Mbong and Luke Montebello who all excelled in the Cyprus victory.
Mbong and Montebello thought they had managed to level terms for Malta but their well-played combination inside the box that was capped by a goal was disallowed for an offside.
“In the second half, we played more in their own half, had a good ball circulation and tried to create some chances as well,” the Malta coach pointed out.
“I have to compliment my players for another important performance.”
In Russia with confidence
Heading into the tricky test that awaits Malta in Moscow against Russia next Tuesday, Mangia remains upbeat on his team’s chances of staging another solid display.
He has urged his players to keep the same belief and confidence they had before and after the Cyprus game because that will be fundamental if they want to have another positive evening at international level.
The Italian tactician is expected to make a few changes from the starting formation that faced Slovenia.
“I did not have in mind to feature players for all three games so I will be doing some changes for the Russia game,” Mangia explained.
“We have a good team that is continuing to grow, and these games are an opportunity for all of them, including the young ones, to taste this level of football.”