Malta plays the first game from Group H of the EURO 2016 qualifiers as Pietro Ghedin’s side faces Croatia at the Stadion Maksimir in Zagreb on Tuesday, kick-off at 20:45.
This will definitely be a tough task for Malta considering the strength of the opponents who are the main contenders to qualify from the group along with Italy.
After the end of the World Cup qualifiers, Malta played four friendly matches, beating the Faroe Islands 3-2 at Ta’ Qali and losing three games away from home – 2-0 against Albania in Durres, 1-0 to Gibraltar in Faro and 1-0 to Slovakia in Zilina. Without any doubt, it was the defeat to Gibraltar which was most worrying, considering both the team’s performance and the result, being Gibraltar’s first ever win.
This may also contributed to Malta coach Pietro Ghedin to change his usual 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation during the last friendly game against Slovakia and what he intends to adopt against Croatia.
With Andrew Hogg starting in goal after establishing himself at Kalloni in Greece, the three central defenders should be Jonathan Caruana, Andrei Agius and Ryan Camilleri unless Caruana fails to recover from a slight injury sustained in training on Monday. In the latter case, Birkirkara defender Zach Muscat, who made his national team debut on Thursday, would start.
Steve Borg and Clayton Failla will play on a the flanks with the three players in midfield – Paul Fenech, Ryan Fenech and Rowen Muscat who is now playing for Dujaunvaros in Hungary.
In attack, FSV Frankfurt’s Andre Schembri will be supporting captain Michael Mifsud.
Addressing the media on Monday, Ghedin said Croatia was undoubtedly a very strong team and therefore playing against such a team was always difficult.
The Malta coach said that his players are in good condition and have been together for the past week, including a short training camp in Senec, Slovakia. He said the game against Slovakia was a tough one but was satisfied that the new 3-5-2 system as he feels that the team is more confident using this system. Although he did not confirm whether he will use the 3-5-2, Ghedin admitted that even the players were happy wih their performance and felt more confident.
Asked to identify and weakness of the Croatian team, Pietro Ghedin stressed that Croatia was a very strong team and had no weak link. With players playing top level football with clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona, week in week out, it could not be otherwise.
Ghedin said for Malta, this game was a chance to go on the pitch, play, give our best and earn respect.
Andre Schembri said that in such games against top-level teams, tactical discipline was of utmost importance and Malta will be doing its best to make life difficult for the opponents. On the other hand, Rowen Muscat said that personally he is feeling confident and well prepared and that with the rest of the team, after the Slovakia friendly, they brushed up any technical problems and tactical issues and are now confident Malta will get a good result.
When both were asked about their experience in Germany and Hungary respectively, Schembri said that he is trying to get used to the tempo of the game in Germany and hopes his experience will help the national team improve the game while Muscat said he as there to prove himself and stressed on the importance of having more local players moving abroad.
Tuesday’s clash will be the seventh between Croatia and Malta. Croatia won six with the other match – the World Cup qualifier in September 2005 at Ta’ Qali ending in a 1-1 draw. In the three matches played on Croatian soil, Croatia won 2-1 in 1999 and 3-0 in both 2005 and 2010.