Malta’s national team will get the World Cup campaign underway next month with two tough games to begin proceedings in qualifying Group H. The prize on offer is, of course, a place in the 2022 World Cup Finals in Qatar next winter. However, head coach Devis Mangia will be all too aware of his sides limitations to hold such lofty ambitions. Simple steps of progress will be the first order of business on the Italian’s mind, who will hope to build on the good run of results since taking over in December 2019.
Indeed, the results under Mangia look very impressive, on paper at least. Since the Italian took the helm, Malta’s record reads: four wins, three draws and just a solitary loss. The run is the best since Malta stringed together four wins and two draws from late 2001 to 2002. Back then, manager Siegfried Held could count on the Rothmans Tournament to bring some beatable sides to Ta’ Qali. Mangia has benefitted from Malta’s placement in the UEFA Nations League D, where Malta pulled out some decent performances, including a fine win in Latvia after a very, very late Steve Borg goal. Malta missed out on promotion to League C, but should be confident for the next Nations League series across 2022-23.
Croatia firm favourites
Nevertheless, Mangia will go into the World Cup qualifiers fully aware that the opposition is much tougher than the Nations League. Malta will be joined in Group H by Croatia, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Cyprus. Croatia are the clear favourites to top Group H, with odds of 20/27 listed on the MansionBet football betting site for Zlatko Dalic’s team to triumph and head directly to Qatar. Second place, and a route to the Playoffs, looks much more difficult to call, and few would be surprised to see Russia, Slovakia or even Slovenia occupy that spot.
As for Malta, Mangia will see Cyprus as the main opportunity to get points on the board, but it will be difficult. Malta have beaten Cyprus just once in six games, and that came all the way back in 1988. The Cypriots, meanwhile, have won the last three, albeit the pair haven’t clashed since 2004. Cyprus have been in Nations League C, but they finished bottom of the group and face a relegation playoff against Estonia next month. It is possible that the Malta and Cyprus will be seeing a lot of each other over the next few years.
Mangia will look to improve ranking
Mangia’s main ambition will be to finish ahead of Cyprus, and perhaps improve Malta’s disappointing FIFA World ranking of 176th. Those issues matter for tournaments further down the line, and they can have a snowball effect if things go your way (as they have for nations like Cyprus and Iceland over the last decade). But the performances in the Nations League could, and should, give plenty of confidence to the team. The likes of Slovenia and Slovakia, both of whom met Malta in the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers, should come to the island knowing that they face a tougher challenge than last time around.
The campaign gets underway on 24th March, with Russia coming to Ta’ Qali. After that, it’s trips to Slovakia (27th March) and Croatia (30th March). Can Malta get any points on the board before welcoming Cyprus to Ta’ Qali in September? It’s a big ask, but technically Malta are one of the form teams in international football, with a seven-game unbeaten run.