After losing narrowly to Bulgaria in the last outing in June, Malta faces Italy at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Firenze on Thursday, kick-off at 20:45, in another match from Group H of the European Qualifiers, hoping to do well.
Malta collected one point so far, in a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in November, losing the other five matches. Apart from the home game against Norway, the performance in the other four matches was quite positive away to Croatia and Azerbaijan and home to Bulgaria.
Speaking ahead of the game, Malta coach Pietro Ghedin said his players were in good condition and are now focussed on facing Italy. They were keen on doing well, although they are well aware of the strength of the opponents.
When asked about particular players, Ghedin stressed that the team does not have ‘grandi campioni’ but had just one – the team. He said unity was the key and strength of the Maltese team.
The Malta coach did not rule out reverting to the 3-5-2 system after utilising the 4-4-2 in recent outings. He said the change was due to the availability of particular players and said that the system adopted was quite flexible.
Ghedin went on to say that although in some cases, the gap between the larger teams and the smaller ones may have decreased, for Malta, it was always very important to work really hard. The team’s objective was always that of improving from one game to another.
As regards Italy, the Malta coach said Italy were always unpredictable and although sometimes they seem to struggle, they are always a team to beat especially in finals. He said he did not mind having players not born in the country representing Italy or any other nation and said that now this was something happening naturally due to globalisation.
Pietro Ghedin went on to say that although playing well was important, getting points was obviously was much more important.
Hibernians defender Andrei Agius said this was an important and difficult game but the team has been preparing well over the past days and are fully focussed on doing well.
Kalloni goalkeeper Andrew Hogg, who returns for the team after missing the last two games – the friendly against Lithuania and the EURO qualifier against Bulgaria, said the team will be focussed on giving its hundred percent and giving Italy a hard time.
Agius did not rule out the possibility of moving once again to Italy where he spent a decade if there was the right opportunity. Hogg, on the other hand, said that such an important game could be a showcase for players.
Apart from Hogg, Steve Borg and Gareth Sciberras are back in squad. Hogg and Steve Borg missed the last two games but Sciberras returns after a long absence due to an injury. However Ghedin could not count on Jonathan Caruana and Ryan Fenech as both sustained injuries. Both had also missed the last games.
Hogg is therefore set to start in goal with Steve Borg, Andrei Agius and Zach Muscat or Ryan Camilleri as the three central defenders with Alex Muscat and Clayton Failla playing on the flanks.
Roderick Briffa, Paul Fenech and Rowen Muscat should be employed once again in midfield with Andre Schembri, Michael Mifsud and Alfred Effiong fighting for two spots in attack.
The other players in squad are Henry Bonello, Justin Haber, Clifford Gatt Baldacchino, Joseph Zerafa, Andrew Cohen, Bjorn Kristensen, Steve Pisani, Gareth Sciberras, Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza and Terence Vella.
Meanwhile Italy coach Antonio Conte excepts nothing other than a win, saying that everyone expects the maximum from Italy in each game, forgetting the past. He said Italy the Malta game presents the opportunity of three important points in their campaign to reach the European Championship finals.
Conte did not rule out the possibility of having both Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti, saying that both could co-exist. He said Verratti is improving and getting more mature while as regards Pirlo, as long as he shows the same enthusiasm, he would continue to form part of the squad.
Antonio Conte said his choices were based on last season since players had only played two league matches so far. He said players needed to play on a regular basis, stressing that if one regularly stays on the bench or gets to play just a few minutes from time to time, it would be difficult for him to be in the national team.
Conte is expected to adopt a 4-3-3 formation. He said that he was glad with the players’ hard work over the previous two days and hoped this will show in Thursday’s game.
The Italy coach still had doubts over the starting line-up – one in defence, one in midfield and another in attack. He is expected to make five changes from the team which held Croatia in a draw in June, naming Chiellini, Pasqual, Verratti, Bertolacci and Eder in the starting line-up. Italy is therefore set to start with Gianluigi Buffon; Matteo Darmian, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Manuel Pasqual; Marco Verratti, Alessandro Pirlo, Andrea Bertolacci; Antonio Candreva, Graziano Pellè, Eder.
Italy will be wearing a new white Puma kit with three vertical stripes in the middle with the colours of the Italian flag and which was launched on Wednesday, just before the media conference.
This will be the eighth clash between Malta and Italy – three played in Italy and four at Ta’ Qali. In January 1987 in Bergamo, Italy won 5-0 thanks to goals by Salvatore Bagni, Giuseppe Bergomi, Gianluca Vialli and twice by Alessandro Altobelli. In March 1993, Italy registered another comfortable win in Palermo, winning 6-1, courtesy of Dino Baggio, Giuseppe Signori, Pietro Vierchowod, Paolo Maldini and a brace by Roberto Mancini with Carmel Busuttil scoring the only goal for Malta. Three years ago in Modena, goals by Mattia Destro and Federico Peluso gave Italy a 2-0 win.
Last October, Southampton striker Graziano Pellè scored the only goal on the 24th minute in a narrow win at Ta’ Qali.
Special guests for the clash at the Stadio Artemio Franchi will be Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.