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Estonia defeat dents Malta’s promotion hopes but nothing’s lost yet

Malta's Teddy Teuma (centre) looks for an opening against Estonia. Photo: Domenic Aquilina

National team face San Marino at National Stadium on Sunday

Unforced errors, technical mistakes, and a declining physical condition cost Malta a crucial point in the promotion race for League C in the UEFA Nations League.

Adding insult to injury is the way in which Malta handed opponents Estonia their winning goal, right at the death.

Despite being superior technically – with a staggering 62% of possession – and creating more goalscoring opportunities – nine to Estonia’s eight – Malta’s performance left much to be desired.

Since Malta’s triumphant display over Cyprus in the famous 3-0 win back in September of last year, the Reds have failed to regain that offensive flair that distinguished Mangia’s side from other European minnows.

It’s true that Malta continued to insist with their new playing style and they never negotiated with their football ideas, but right now it is producing more glimpses of quality rather than continuity during an entire 90 minutes.

Could be that Malta’s primary playing style has become predictable and there is the need to become more versatile. Could be also that some players might need a breather and leave space for fellow team-mates whose mental and physical levels are a step higher in that moment.

The gutsy displays shown against Slovenia and Russia following the Cyprus victory were encouraging but the last-gasp draw in Larnaca against Cyprus (2-2) had already started to uncover the first major concerns on the physical condition of the team.

The level of fitness might have been one of the factors that contributed to the dismal defeats to Croatia and Slovakia in the final two games of the previous 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

Nonetheless in March, Malta had bounced back with two wins against Azerbaijan and Kuwait with Mangia’s team producing two decent displays that boded well heading into the Nations League.

The favourable draw in the Nations League immediately put the pressure on Mangia’s side to deliver an unprecedented result for Maltese football – a promotion into League C.

This might have added an extra layer of responsibility on the shoulders of the Maltese players especially in their opening game against San Marino where they failed to capitalise on their dominance in a lacklustre 45 minutes.

Substitutes Jan Busuttil and Juan Corbalan saved the day for the Maltese against the 211th-ranked side to match Estonia’s identical 2-0 win over San Marino.

On the eve of the Estonia encounter, Malta coach Mangia had played down the importance of the home game against Estonia during his pre-match comments.

Whether he really meant it or whether it was a typical mind game, only Mangia himself can know. What is sure though, is that Malta needed to obtain something from this match to keep their promotion hopes alive.

“We did a lot of technical mistakes, in particular in the last 15 minutes,” Mangia told a news conference.

“Physically, we have struggled a lot but about the fitness level I have been talking for an entire year now.

“Our concentration started to decline, and we eventually lost the game.”

If Teddy Teuma’s missed penalty was anything to go by, it was the prelude to a below average performance from a technical point of view especially from the Union St-Gilloise’s captain himself.

Playing further up on the field in the new 3-4-1-2 system adopted by Mangia, Teuma is one of the fulcrums of the side with his dribbling, passing distribution and switch of play.

Teuma has played 40 games with his club during a 2021-22 campaign that started way back in July. It seems that the hectic schedule in Belgium took a toll on him and is struggling to replicate his usual performances at the heart of the midfield.

Unfortunately for him, he was at fault twice in the last three goals conceded by Malta – against Venezuela and Estonia.

League C promotion

Allowing Teuma to play in the attacking trio is the inclusion of deep-lying playmaker Brandon Paiber who adds more technical quality next to Matthew Guillaumier.

“We are doing a lot of mistakes despite being in control of the game,” Paiber explained.

“We continue to dominate throughout the game, but we are struggling to seize on all the possession.”

With just four games to be played in this group, any slip could be costly in bid for a League C promotion.

“Now we have to shift our focus on Sunday’s game against San Marino,” Mangia said.

“We have to see who will recover quickly from a mental point of view but we might do some changes to our starting formation as well.”

Henri Anier’s 94th-minute goal is not a death sentence, but it condemns the Maltese to beat Estonia on their own turf by at least two goals. The tiebreaker for this competition considers the superior goal difference in matches played among the teams in question should both teams obtain an equal number of points against each other.

Inevitably, this will add more pressure on the Maltese side to bounce back with a victory against San Marino to make sure that September’s trip to Tallinn has something at stake.

“We have seen that Malta is improving and trying to play a different style of football,” Estonia coach Tomas Haberli said.

“We needed a good display against them if we wanted to take victory home.

“Obviously, now we are expecting an even harder match in Tallinn as they will be determined to take the three points themselves.”

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