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Watch: Azerbaijan win sets Malta on right path ahead of Nations League

Malta striker Alex Satariano (right) battles for the ball against Azerbaijan. Photo: Domenic Aquilina

Jurgen Degabriele’s third international goal for the national team guided Devis Mangia’s team past Azerbaijan to open the 2022 calendar with a victory.

The victory puts the Maltese side in a good place as they start to step up their preparations for June’s new Nations League edition.

In three months’ time, Malta will be facing San Marino twice in the space of a week and play against either Cyprus and Estonia – who fired blanks in Thursday’s first leg – in a Nations League Group D campaign where Mangia’s side is expected to perform well and challenge for League C promotion.

Just four European teams sit behind Malta – ranked 174th – in the FIFA rankings – Liechtenstein and Gibraltar against whom Mangia has picked up a win, San Marino who will face Malta twice in June and Moldova who Mangia has yet to play against.

Malta’s four other wins from the six obtained under the guidance of Mangia have all come against higher-ranked teams in Latvia, Andorra, Cyprus, and Azerbaijan besides a 2-2 draw against Slovakia.

Despite being just a friendly, the Azerbaijan match was a perfect gauge for the Maltese players to show their superiority against teams which are placed in their region in the world rankings.

It is fair to say that the test was passed with flying colours and that Friday’s display is very encouraging ahead of the competitive commitments in the summer months.

“In the past, we had a lot of tight-balanced encounters against Azerbaijan,” Andrei Agius, who was playing his final game for Malta, said after the game.

“However, I think today we played a really good game and such a performance against this type of opponent bodes well for the future of this team, starting from their Nations League commitments.”

Friday’s victory was Malta’s first against the 121st-ranked Azerbaijan in almost two decades since Michael Mifsud scored the winning goal for the Maltese side against the same Azeris way back on April 17, 2002.

Malta’s last five direct encounters, between 2013 and 2018 resulted in two Azerbaijan wins (3-0 and 2-0) and three straight draws including a famous 1-1 draw at the Baku Olympic Stadium during the 2018 Nations League, with coach Ray Farrugia at the helm.

Degabriele’s goal has improved Malta’s record against Azerbaijan to four wins and three draws in nine games.

For Malta, this was a much-needed win following the Croatia and Slovakia debacles which had seen Mangia’s side ship 13 goals in two matches.

Against the Azeri side, Malta produced a neat performance, executing Mangia’s gameplan almost to perfection. In fact, for all the chances that Malta created, the winning margin could have been even bigger.

Malta produced 16 attempts at goal, with five on target, including a Degabriele effort that came off the post in the first half, and six off target including two open play situations where Joseph Mbong and Luke Montebello failed to capitalise on their chances.

Clean sheet

Also, this was the sixth time that Malta registered a clean sheet thanks to a remarkable defensive phase that allowed Azerbaijan just one shot on goal.

“It was a not a good performance from our side,” Azerbaijan coach Giovanni De Biasi said.

“However, the Maltese players were determined to win this game and they dominated their territory for majority of the game.”

These comments from a former Serie A coach who took Albania to an historic European championship in 2016 speak volumes on the continuous development of this Malta national team.

It was no surprise that Mangia was pleased with the effort of his players.

“I liked everything from the performance that the players put up on the field,”

Malta coach Mangia told reporters.

“If there is one thing that I would say we could have done better was scoring more goals, because we created a lot of opportunities.”

For this friendly, which precedes Tuesday’s game against Kuwait, coach Mangia opted for an attacking trio composed of Floriana’s Brandon Paiber behind Degabriele of Hibernians and Alexander Satariano, on whom there were a lot of expectations given his lack of playing time at club level in Italy, first at Frosinone and now at Pergolettese.

The former Sliema Wanderers player has only played for 11 minutes in both Serie B (Frosinone) and now Serie C (Pergolettese) to the dismay of his national team coach who would like the Maltese youngster to have more playing time in Italy’s third-tier.

While showing some rustiness in his game, Satariano was key in Malta’s playing style against Azerbaijan with Mangia heaping praise on his performance as well.

“Obviously, I cannot judge his club’s decision for not playing him,” Mangia said.

“It’s strange that he does not play but today I felt that he did well, maybe not in his best physical shape.

“I hope that from now till the end of the season he will have more opportunities to play in Italy.”

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