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World Cup qualifiers

Malta coach Mangia pleased with Moscow display ahead of final run-in

Malta's Joseph Mbong controls the ball against Russia in Moscow. Photo: Domenic Aquilina

The Malta national team left the Oktyrin Stadium in Moscow with a tinge of disappointment following their gutsy display in a 2-0 defeat to Russia in the 2022 World Cup qualifying match on Wednesday night.

In the post-game interview, Malta forward Luke Montebello pointed out that while the players were pleased with their performances, they were disappointed at their failure of picking up points against their more-quoted opponents

The Birkirkara player’s comments underlined the change in mentality within the national team environment since Devis Mangia took charge, where they are seeking to combine positive performances with points.

Gaining at least a point against Russia, a team who competed in the recent Euro 2020 finals, seemed a tall ask on paper for the 177th ranked Malta.

Nonetheless, Mangia’s side managed to put on another impressive display, dominating a large chunk of the second half where they came close to score and embarrass Russia on their own soil.

Mangia’s system, the 3-4-1-2 shape, seems to have been completely absorbed by all the players as whoever starts or comes on from the bench fits instantly and leaves an impact on the game.

The continuous growth of the national team has also been highlighted by opposing players such as Jan Oblak, Slovenia’s goalkeeper, and Daler Kuzayev, of Russia.

Moreover, this is also reflected in the statistics of the game which show that Russia’s first shot on goal after scoring in the first half came just in the 70th minute when the Maltese started to tire out.

But here comes the crux for Malta’s growth process. Another defensive mistake cost Malta a goal after Fedor Smolov put Russia ahead after profiting from Steve Borg’s short backpass.

Time and again, Mangia has insisted to his players to cut mistakes but sometimes, the build-up from the back that the Italian tactician wants from his players backfires.

“Mistakes happen because they are part of the game, but we want to stick to our gameplay,” Mangia told a news conference.

“Coming here and lose 2-0, with one of the goals being a penalty, does not let you much to say having put up our usual performance.”

Russian journalists heaped praise on Mangia’s playing style, underlining the fact that Malta remained well and alive in the game even after going a goal behind, as they managed to create a number of clear-cut chances to level terms.

“This is our philosophy of football and we want to stick to it,” the former Palermo coach said.

“If I have to lose a game, I prefer to lose it as we did against Russia by trying to impose the principles of the game that we are working on.”

This was Malta’s third game in this group against a side that participated in this summer’s European Championships – against Slovakia (2-2), Croatia (3-0), and Russia (2-0).

In none of these games, Malta disappointed and when facing Croatia and Russia, the match happened to be the third game of every international window during which the fatigue started to emerge in the Maltese players.

Heading into this international window, majority of the Maltese players had already played a good number of games with their clubs in both the European competitions and the domestic league.

Together with a solid pre-season with their clubs and an extra week of preparation with the national team, the physical fitness of the Maltese players was way better than what it was in March when domestic football was halted.

In fact, the only time the Maltese side was really under pressure was in the second part of the second 45 minutes against Russia – an important message that if Malta continues to improve its fitness levels, they can manage to match their opponents and remain in the game until the end.

The final four games of the qualifiers see Malta host three of them while the away game will be the highly-anticipated trip to Cyprus.

The calendar gives an opportunity to Mangia’s side to wrap these qualifiers on a high.

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