Malta coach Devis Mangia hopes his players will be ready for what promises to be a tough night as the national team take on Group H runners-up Croatia at the National Stadium on Thursday (kick-off: 20.45).
The Croatians arrived in Malta with one goal in mind – that to pick up all maximum points from their match so as to keep up the pressure on group leaders Russia ahead of Sunday’s decisive clash in Split that will decide who will finish top of the group and secure automatic qualification for next year’s finals in Qatar.
For Malta, on the other hand, the match against Croatia is another opportunity to continue to showcase their recent progress and try and pick up a valuable point that would cement this qualifying campaign as the most successful of all time with a record six-point haul.
Speaking to the media on the eve of the match, Mangia highlighted the difficult challenge that awaited his players against Croatia but has encouraged them to approach the match with the right personality and try to take the opportunities that could come their way.
“Croatia are without a doubt one of the best teams in the world,” Mangia told reporters.
“We have a good idea of what to expect from them as they are a team full of world class players who like to keep the ball a lot.
“No doubt, there will be periods during the match where we will have to suffer but there will be also times where it will be possible for us to play our football. And it is in those moments that we will be able to express ourselves that we should try and make the most of the opportunity.
“My players need to be ready to read some situations of the match and try to take advantage of them. We need to have the personality so that when these moments arise in the match we will be ready to pounce.”
Last month, Malta faced Slovenia, a team who have similar qualities to Croatia, and the national team produced a very disappointing defensive display when they slumped to a heavy 4-0 defeat.
Asked whether he looked at that game with his players to try and avoid similar mistakes against a stronger side in the form of Croatia, Mangia said: “We always look at what we have done but for me the most important thing is that we play our game and ensure we do not commit mistakes that will facilitate Croatia’s job, it’s as simple as that.
“I believe that when we face Croatia away for 50 minutes our team played very well but then two or three situations changed the course of the game and that happens in football.
“For sure it will be very important that the team is focused right from kick-off and be compact in all parts of the pitch.
“But I repeat I am really happy with how the team has prepared for the game. From what I saw from Tuesday’s training session, it was without doubt the best I have seen from my players so that makes me optimistic that we can produce a good performance against Croatia.”
Mangia admitted that he has a few injury problems to contend with before he can name his starting formation.
“At the moment, there are a few players who are contending some small physical problems so we will need to assess them,” Mangia said.
“Besides we also have other players who do not have the physical condition to play two matches in the space of three days so we need to make an evaluation on who will play against Croatia and who will play against Slovakia.”
Also present for yesterday’s news conference was Bjorn Kristensen, the Hibernians midfielder who was back in Mangia’s selection after missing last month’s qualifiers through injury and suspension.
“It’s always a great honour to be part of the national team,” Kristensen said.
“You always have to work hard to earn your place in the team as no one in our group can say that his place in the squad is guaranteed.
“It is up to me as a player to ensure that, with my performances with the club and during training with the national team, make it difficult for the coach not to select me.
“We are aware of the difficult challenge awaiting us. The squad has been training hard for the past ten days and we are all ready to give our 100 per cent.
“The spirit in the dressing room is very good and we are looking forward to give everything we have come the match on Thursday.”
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