In December 2020, the Maltese national football team were drawn in Group H of the European qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The draw, which was made during a virtual event at the Hallenstadion in Zurich, pitted Malta against at least one of the most feared national teams in world football during recent years. The Maltese were one of only five nations in Pot 6 of the draw. Joining them were Moldova, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein and San Marino, such is their dwindling status in world football, at least for the time being.
Head coach, Devis Mangia, who has enjoyed something of a nomadic career as a football manager across the Italian lower leagues and latterly in the top-flight of Romania’s Liga I, believes their World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign will be a “good challenge”. However, Mangia could not hide his disappointment given there were “better options” to face in “Pots 3, 4 and 5”.
Where will opportunities for points lie for Mangia and Malta in Group H? Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each nation in the group.
It’s obvious that Croatia will be the clear favourites to go on and win Group H at a canter. The finalists of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Croats are still one of the most experienced and dependable squads in European football. They boast players with hundreds of caps to their name, with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic all still at the spine of this Croatian team. Perisic has been in particularly good form for club side Inter Milan in the 2020/21 Serie A. Inter are now clear -800 favourites in the Serie A futures market with leading US sports betting analyst FOX Bet, and look set to end Juventus’ long period of domestic dominance in Italy.
If there is a minor flaw in the Croatian side, it’s that their goalkeeping options are somewhat poor. The likes of Lovre Kalinic and Dominik Livakovic both ply their trade the Croatian League, while third-choice Simon Sluga plays for Championship side Luton Town.
The Slovakians are still a team to be respected despite falling to 34th in the most recent FIFA rankings. Stefan Tarkovic’s men will be hoping to be in contention to qualify for only their second FIFA World Cup as an independent nation, having reached the last 16 in 2010. The Slovaks boast plenty of technically gifted and wily midfielders with the likes of Juraj Kucka and Vladimir Weiss pulling the strings.
It’s in the final third where things get a little trickier for fans of the Sokoli, with very little firepower to call upon within the national ranks. 32-year-old Michal Duris has made 52 appearances for the national team but scored just seven goals. Robert Bozenik, who was snapped up by Dutch side Feyenoord after 16 goals in 48 games for Slovakian side Zilina, could be groomed as the country’s next big hope.
No-one predicted that the Russian national team would upset the form book to reach the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup on home soil. The Russians were highly unfancied with their out-of-form, ageing squad seemingly finding another gear in front of their own fans. They prepare to lock horns with Croatia in Group H in a re-run of their 2018 World Cup quarter-final.
The Russian squad largely plies its trade domestically, with only four of the senior squad playing their club football outside of Russia. The awkward, gangly presence of Artem Dzyuba provides the nuisance factor, while crafty midfielder Aleksandr Golovin offers the ‘X Factor’. Finding a long-term replacement for retired keeper Igor Akinfeev will be vital to Russia’s future success.
The Slovenian national side enjoyed a fruitful 2020, remaining undefeated in their eight games, including six UEFA Nations League encounters and two friendlies against Azerbaijan and San Marino respectively. This should stand them in good stead for the beginning of their Group H campaign, although clashes with Croatia and Slovenia from the outset could put them on the back foot from the outset.
Like Slovakia, Slovenia is fortunate to have several experienced midfielders with top-flight experience in European football. Vice-captain Josip Ilicic has been a mainstay in Atalanta’s remarkable recent resurgence. Similarly, Slovenia also lacks a striker to hang their hat on, with Andraz Sporar the most experienced striker with just 24 caps and two goals to his name. Their goalkeeper Jan Oblak is undoubtedly the star attraction, having established himself as hot property in La Liga with Atletico Madrid.
The Cypriot national team are clinging on to their place inside the top 100 of the FIFA world rankings. Cyprus finished rock bottom of their group in the UEFA National League C, resulting in them moving down into the relegation playoffs. Like Malta, Cyprus have never qualified for a major finals and they look highly unlikely to threaten at the top end of Group H this time around.
This current crop of Cypriot players looks like a very young squad, with no-one aged older than 27 at present. Like Russia, the majority of this Cyprus squad play their club football domestically. It’s fair to say that Cyprus will be Malta’s Mediterranean rivals to avoid the wooden spoon in Group H.
Malta and Cyprus have only faced each other twice in 2002 and 2003 respectively, with Cyprus winning out 2-1 on both occasions. That was almost an entire generation ago, so it’s hard to read too much into those head-to-heads, but Devis Mangia certainly has his work cut out to pull a rabbit out of the hat.