A day before the match between Cyprus and Malta, national teams head coach Devis Mangia had said that it is important that the players feel the pressure before an international game otherwise they should stay at home.
He wanted his players to face this match with the right attitude, stepping up from the shambles against Slovenia.
The performance might not have been a classic, but the attitude and willingness propelled Malta towards its third positive result in this campaign.
Jurgen Degabriele’s late leveller, a day after his 25th birthday, rescued Malta from a pointless international window as they secured a well-deserved 2-2 draw against Cyprus.
After Malta’s brilliant victory over the same opponents a month ago, there was a lot of expectations on Mangia’s national team to emulate that performance and emerge as winners in Larnaca.
However, one had to expect a different approach from the Cyprus national team who wanted to make amends for that defeat while leapfrogging Malta in Group H.
In fact, Cyprus did make their intentions clear from the start having also forged ahead inside the first eight minutes when they pounced on a Maltese mistake during the build-up phase.
After Zach Muscat’s equaliser, Cyprus still managed to pull themselves ahead in this game and their goal, ten minutes from time, looked set to give them three valuable points.
Nonetheless, it was mission failed for the 103rd ranked Cyprus to the embarrassment of their clan for having failed to beat Malta, ranked 171st, at least once in this qualification campaign.
On the other hand, Malta have matched the all-time record of points in a qualification campaign for a major tournament with five points.
“I am pleased for this record and we hope to continue to increase the number of points in our group,” Mangia said after the game.
“However, the objective remains to improve the performance game after game.”
The crux of the situation is exactly here for the Maltese team. It was easy to get away with the euphoria of a late equaliser and a positive result.
However, the performance in Larnaca was not up to what Mangia’s standards have been throughout his tenure and it is important to take an in depth look into what the team has produced in the last two games to try and end the World Cup campaign on a high.
“We lacked confidence in the first half, even though the pressure should have been more on Cyprus rather than on us,” the Italian coach said.
“We complicated a bit our lives in the first half and maybe we could have been more compact as a team after levelling terms.”
The upcoming commitments will not be an easy task, though, for the Maltese team in particular since they will host Croatia who are currently second and are looking to overcome leaders Russia in order to qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup.
Defender Enrico Pepe underlined the importance on the point gained as in the post-match interview he said that the national team should continue to build on the attitude they have shown in the second half to continue to improve.
Fellow defensive partner Zach Muscat went further on, adding that the team should believe more in their qualities and gain more confidence and once that barrier is broken, the team can improve even more.
The opening half was not promising from the Maltese side and Mangia tried to make his team switch gear by swapping defensive midfielder Triston Caruana with a more offensive player in Steve Pisani.
“We tried to change things in the second half as we want to improve our performance,” Mangia said.
“We are better than this and we can produce better displays, but I am happy with the character that the players showed on the field.”
The Italian tactician explained that it is time that his players become smarter and clever to read the game well.
“Although we could have administered the game and try to win it, we almost lost it,” he said.
“If we understand the performance, analyse the positive and negative things we did and not focus only on the result, that will help us more.
“If the game had finished two minutes before, we might be here speaking about a disappointing performance therefore we don’t need to judge the display according to the result.”
Meanwhile, Mangia lamented about the physical fitness of the players which might have been a factor in this game.
“The players know my thoughts about the fitness requirements, they know what they have to do to improve it and we hope that the players will work on it in the coming weeks when they are with their clubs,” he said.
Now it’s important for the team to remain composed and focus on the final games of the qualification campaign, as there is another important objective to achieve.
Malta avoided the wooden spoon only once, in the 1994 World Cup qualifications and will be hoping to achieve the same result this time around.
The home support at the National Stadium will play a key part, just like the 200 fans in the away sector in Larnaca did.
“The support was amazing because at times it felt like we were playing at home,” midfielder Jake Grech said after the game.
Photo: Domenic Aquilina.