After losing the last three games to Spain, Sweden and Romania, Malta faces another difficult task on Thursday as the national team takes on Norway at the Ullevaal Stadion in Oslo, kick-off at 20:45.
Apart from the win over the Faroe Islands in the first group game, the team’s performance against Spain was quite good despite the 0-2 defeat. The team did well at times in the 3-0 defeat to Sweden in Solna but disappointed heavily in the 0-4 defeat to Romania at Ta’ Qali.
Addressing the media on Wednesday, Malta coach Ray Farrugia said “This is an important and difficult game for Malta. The condition of the players is much better than when we met Sweden and Romania in June at the end of the long season. Those were two very difficult games. Physically the players are much better now. We prepared in the best way possible and despite being aware that this will be a tough game, we are looking forward for it.”
Farruga went on to say, “In the Sweden game, we were as good as Sweden in the first 45 minutes but in the second half, there was a decline in our performance due to the prolonged season. If we maintained the same momentum throughout the ninety minutes, the result would have been different. I am encouraged by the performance in the first half and hopefully we repeat this performance against Norway.”
“In the Romania game, we had a disappointing result. The players were coming from a long season – including the decider …. a prolonged season. Physically and mentally the players were not good. Now I can see the difference. These are things that happen. Physically, the players are much better now. Hopefully, tomorrow we would get a much better result,” added Ray Farrugia.
Asked what would be a good result for Malta, the Malta coach said, “In football, the only great result is a win. If you lose 0-1 or 0-4, it is the same as both are defeats. For us, a good result is not to lose – a win or a draw.”
Facing Nordic teams has always been a difficult task for Malta and playing against Norway was no different. In fact, the two teams met ten times with Norway emerging as winners on eight occasions – the other two matches ending in draws in two friendly matches at Ta’ Qali. In Oslo, Norway won 2-0 in a EURO 96 qualifier, 4-0 in the infamous EURO 2008 qualifier and 2-0 in a EURO 2016 qualifier.
“In past, we have always suffered against such teams. We worked mainly on these issues. One has to admit we do not have stars. We do not have players who make the whole difference. So for us it is important that the team stays compact and that the players work for each other. If we are focussed and everyone does his job, we could give them a hard time,” said Farrugia.
Norway are currently fourth in Group F on five points after losing 2-1 to Spain away from home, two draws at home – 3-3 with Sweden and 2-2 with Romania before the 2-0 away from home against the Faroe Islands. Lying just two points behind Sweden and Romania and seven behind leaders Spain, Norway will obviously seek maximum points from this clash, hoping to move at least temporarily in third place before the Scandinavian derby with Sweden.
Ray Farrugia said “They have strong players. They are very good team. On their day, they can beat anyone. We know that Norway is a strong team but in football you cannot say. Sometimes there are surprises and nothing is certain.”
Joseph Mbong added “This is a tough game. We prepared very well and now it is up to us players to give our utmost to play a great game and may be obtain a good result.”
“Young players were given faith by the coach and we are paying him back on the field of play. We have a good mixture of experience and youth. If the more experienced players support the younger ones, this would bring the best out of the younger players,” added the Hibs player.
Once again Farrugia is expected to make some changes from the last outing. The Malta coach admitted that there are players who are unable to play two back-to-back matches in such a small gap of time.
Farrugia will probably revert to the 3-4-3 formation which was adopted mainly in this campaign. With Henry Bonello set to be confirmed in goal, Steve Borg, Andrei Agius and Zach Muscat are sure starters at the back. In midfield, Juan Corbalan and Joseph Mbong start on the flanks with the in form Nikolai Muscat and Triston Caruana possibly being preferred to the more experienced Rowen Muscat and Paul Fenech. In attack, Jean Paul Farrugia should be back supporting Kyrian Nwoko together with Alfred Effiong.
Meanwhile Norway coach Lars Lagerback, who took over as coach in February 2017, after leading Iceland to a quarter-final finish in the EURO 2016, is aiming to put Norway back on track after they failed to reach the final stage of a major competition since the EURO 2000.
“Every game is important but the situation is that we gave away four points against Romania and Sweden. When you lose points here, you are out of the race.”
Therefore Lagerback hopes to make the most out of the match against Malta and that against Norway three days later.
“No matter the difference between the two teams in the ranking, we should respect the team we are playing. I expect a game where we can have more ball possession and look forward for a positive game.”
The Norway coach admitted that although he has great respect for opponents, against Malta he would take a more aggressive approach than when facing Spain for example. However he said that the approach would also depend on the Maltese plans.
Norway are unbeaten in the last ten fixtures at home. Since Lagerback took over as new coach, the team had a shaky start but improved considerably. He said that especially over the past two years, the team performed really well and was unlucky to drop points in final matches in particular matches.
Olympiakos defender Omar Elabdellaoui added that although they were expecting Malta to be a compact team, it was a game from which they wanted to take maximum points.
For this game, Lagerback included two new faces, namely Mathias Normann and Erling Braut Haaland.
The squad at his disposal is made up of:
goalkeepers Rune Almenning Jarstein (Hertha Berlin), Sten Michael Grytebust (FC København), Sondre Løvseth Rossbach (Odds Ballklubb);
defenders Kristoffer Vassbakk Ajer (Celtic), Haitam Aleesami (Amiens), Even Hovland (Rosenborg), Omar Elabdellaoui (Olympiakos), Birger Solberg Meling (Rosenborg), Håvard Nordtveit (Hoffenheim), Tore Reginiussen (Rosenborg), Jonas Svensson (AZ Alkmaar), Ruben Gabrielsen (Molde);
midfielders Sander Gard Bolin Berge (KRC Genk), Markus Henriksen (Hull), Stefan Marius Johansen (Fulham), Fredrik Midtsjø (AZ Alkmaar), Mathias Antonsen Normann (FC Rostov), Ole Kristian Selnæs (Shenzen), Martin Ødegaard (Real Sociedad);
forwards Tarik Elyounoussi (AIK), Erling Braut Haaland (Red Bull Salzburg), Bjørn Maars Johnsen (Rosenborg), Joshua Christian Kojo King (Bournemouth), Alexander Sørloth (Trabzonspor)