There has never been so much pressure on the Malta men’s national team to deliver in an international tournament.
The new edition of the UEFA Nations League has brought with it a huge amount of optimism and expectations on the group of Maltese players and their coach Devis Mangia.
The draw for this group was considered a favourable one for Malta as they were pitted against San Marino, who never won a game at competitive level, and 110th-ranked Estonia who have ushered into a new era under coach Tomas Haberli after he took over in January 2021 and chalked up seven positive results in 14 outings.
Starting with a win was important for Malta to live up to the expectations. The 2-0 victory, Malta’s 10th ever at competitive level, provides more tranquillity to the team ahead of the crucial home clash against Estonia.
Mangia, who has coached Malta in 24 games since September 2020, and his technical staff, have been the catalysts for the progress that Malta have made in such a short time.
It was a deep breath of fresh air to see Malta adopting its own playing identity and no longer imposing itself according to the opponents.
Win or lose, there is one philosophy to follow and that has been the mantra for this team to develop and become a respectable side on the international stage.
Although Malta continues to be considered as a minnow in international football – ranked at 159, its improvement has caught the eye of other national teams including San Marino whose coach admitted that he is keeping a close eye on Mangia’s methodology in his pre-match comments.
Inevitably, the superiority shown by Malta against the likes of Cyprus (105), Azerbaijan (129) and Kuwait (146) has put Mangia’s side a contender for a League C promotion in this Nations League campaign.
While this means that the Malta FA is reaping the fruits from its investment, it also adds more pressure on the shoulders of the national team players.
A hint of that extra pressure was in evidence during the opening 45 minutes where Malta came out of the blocks with high tempo but as the half drew on, that intensity started to decline and the continuous technical mistakes prevented Malta from capitalising on its possession.
“In the first half we did not play a good game because we committed too many technical mistakes. We did not move enough without the ball and the ball possession was very slow,” Mangia told a news conference after the game.
“Probably there was some tension inside the team because you can feel that there has been an additional pressure around these players to deliver and such situations are not normal for a national team like Malta.
“In the second half we stepped up our performance as we were better from a technical point of view, the substitutes entered in the right manner and the other players grew in confidence as well.”
The strong showing and remarkable results attained against other nations are highlighting one aspect that should not go unnoticed – the quality of the Maltese young talent.
There is no doubt that the introduction of players with dual citizenship such as Enrico Pepe – one of the best players against Venezuela and San Marino – and stalwart Teddy Teuma have helped the team to make another step up from a technical point of view.
However, the courage shown by coach Ray Farrugia before and Italian tactician Mangia now of inserting more young players into the first-team set-up is paying dividends.
In fact, it was a trio of young players that lifted Malta over San Marino and collect the first three points of the campaign.
Jan Busuttil, 23, in his first ever competitive game for Malta, put his team in the driving seat against San Marino.
After the Floriana forward was picked up by a Matthew Guillaumier key pass, he produced a superb solo effort before seizing the chance with a curling low drive – an offensive drive that shed light on his neat footwork, his change of speed and his clinical finishing. Characteristics like this have propelled the Floriana player to seven goals and five assists in the Maltese championship this season.
“Everyone is aware of the improvements that we have been doing under coach Devis Mangia,” Busuttil explained.
“From a personal point of view, I just need to keep working hard and try to put the coach in a difficult place to choose his starting formation which would mean that I am on the right track.”
Sealing the win was Guillaumier, whose last club game was back in April. A 24-year-old playmaker who established himself as a key player at Serie C club Siena in just three months and who is expected to ply his trade abroad again next season.
“I feel we were not confident at all in the first half, especially personally where I was playing more safe passes rather than trying to spark our attack into life,” the Ħamrun Spartans midfielder said.
“There might be some pressure on ourselves since we can do very well in this group. A huge credit goes to the entire team because we need every single person if we want to have our say in League D.”
In the process, assisting Guillaumier was 25-year-old Juan Corbalan whose inch-perfect cross was the perfect sample of what Mangia requires from his wingbacks.
Corbalan, who is on the books of Ħamrun Spartans, was making his first appearance for Malta since September 4, in the 1-0 defeat against Slovenia.
“I am very pleased to have been given these 45 minutes to play and I really hope that I continue to be given more playing time of course,” Corbalan said after the game.
“I am also happy for my assist but I feel that it was the collective effort that has enabled us to pick up this victory.”
There has never been doubt about whether Malta had enough youth talent to sustain the senior national team. They just needed someone who trusts them and is patient with them.
Malta has deployed the youngest squad in this League D – Group 2 assignments so far with an average age of 26.9 years and that bodes well for the future of this team with more talents knocking on the door to make the upgrade from the U-21’s to the ‘A’ selection.
Since Mangia took over, Malta picked up a win or a draw in 13 of the 24 games played.
A remarkable statistic that has rekindled the enthusiasm towards the national team and the Nations League is the perfect opportunity to capitalise on the progress and bring unprecedented international success.
What’s important for the Maltese team is to make sure they are not overwhelmed by their main opponent in this group – pressure.
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