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Team’s physical fitness is Mangia’s main concern for Russia showdown

Malta players go through their paces during training in Moscow on Monday. Photo: Domenic Aquilina

Malta coach Devis Mangia said that his team’s physical fitness was his main concern as the national team takes on group leaders Russia in a 2022 World Cup qualifier in Moscow tonight (kick-off: 20.45).

The Malta national team are heading into the match after a highly-encouraging week of international football which saw the side register an impressive 3-0 win over Cyprus at the National Stadium and then were unlucky to suffer a 1-0 defeat to Slovenia in Ljubljana, courtesy of a highly-dubious penalty.

Tonight, Malta faces its toughest test of this month against a Russian side who are firmly in the battle for securing an automatic berth in next year’s finals in Qatar, albeit at present they will be unable to compete under the name or flag of their country as they are currently serving a two-year ban from international competition imposed on them by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Last March, Malta showed signs of fatigue in their third qualifier held in the space of a week in Croatia and Mangia admitted yesterday that his team’s physical fitness was a big concern for him today.

“The March qualifiers were an eye-opener for us as it tested our players’ physical fitness,” Mangia said.

“This time around we have changed our approach between the first match and the second match, by changing five players and giving a breather to key players. Obviously, now I will have a look at the players during training and between today and tomorrow morning I will make a decision on who will start the match.”

Malta opened their qualifying campaign against Russia last March when they suffered a 3-1 defeat at the National Stadium. But since then, the Russian have sacked their former coach Stanislav Cherchesov following the team’s poor showing in the Euro 2020.

Former Russian international Valery Karpin has been installed as the new man in charge and this month he has enjoyed a positive run of results this month after they held Croatia to a goalless draw before defeating Cyprus 2-0 to share top spot in Group H with the Croatians on ten points.

“Russia are a different side to the one we faced last March,” Mangia said.

“They have a new coach and are playing with a new system of play – 4-3-3. Personally, I really enjoy watching them play –  they are very entertaining. The main changes he affected in the team was in the skills and characteristics of their midfielders so that is one area we are looking out for to ensure we are ready.

“But it’s clear that our objective remains always the same – to try and play our game and make sure that we read the match well so we can find moments when we can hurt our opponents. It’s not going to be easy, as Russia is a very strong side but we will do our best – that is for sure.”

Malta project

Malta’s eye-catching results in the last few months have inevitably attracted the interest of the Russian media during the pre-match press conference and they asked about the project the Malta FA has given him, Mangia said that the team is moving in the right direction.

“We are very happy with our project and how things are moving,” Mangia said.

“The most important thing at the moment is to focus on the performance of our players and not on the number of points that we collect, albeit they are very important too.

“I am very happy with how the team has been performing in recent months but we have  vast room for improvement and that is one thing that satisfies me most as it means that we can still can get a lot better.”

Also present for this press conference was Malta goalkeeper Henry Bonello.

The Ħamrun Spartans shotstopper has been one of the key components in Mangia’s team so far after managing a clean sheet against Cyprus and then producing a very assured display against Slovenia which saw him save a late penalty.

The streak of positive performances collected by the national team since Devis Mangia took charge of the side has inevitably increased the confidence in the Maltese players and Bonello said that the players always take the pitch with the firm belief that they can play their game.

“When you face strong teams like Russia, the most important thing is that we believe that we can play our football,” Mangia said.

“There is no doubt that Russia are a very strong side but we still believe that we can do something and play against Russia. We know that they are a high-level side but we believe that we can get a good result.”

Mangia is expected to make at least one change to his starting formation as defender Enrico Pepe is out with a knee injury with Steve Borg, the front-runner to regain his place in the team’s three-man defence.

Joseph Mbong, who was replaced against Slovenia late in the second half after picking up a knock, will be assessed before a decision will be taken on whether he will retain his place in the starting formation.

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