Malta takes on Russia as European Qualifiers get underway

Malta hosts Russia in the first match from Group H of the European Qualifiers leading to the 2022 FIFA World Cup at the National Stadium on Wednesday, kick-off at 20:45. The first match of a triple-header which includes away matches against Slovakia in Trnava on Saturday and Croatia in Rijeka on Tuesday.

Coming from an impressive run of seven consecutive positive results including five positive results in the UEFA Nations League which earned Malta the second place in Group D1, the morale is high although Wednesday’s opponent is a much-higher ranked side compared to the teams faced last year.

Addressing the media on Tuesday, Malta coach Devis Mangia said “We are starting a new competition, it is a new experience and for us, this will be another opportunity, another step to grow. We will try to do our best on the pitch.@

In five of the six UEFA Nations League matches, Malta had more ball-possession and although this will unlikely be the case against Russia, the Malta coach stressed on the importance of using possession effectively.

“You don’t win games, just by having possession. It will be difficult to have the same level of control in tomorrow’s game but what I want is that when we have the ball, we must try to be protagonists.”

“I don’t how many times we will have the ball … maybe they will be better than us and they will oblige us to stay close to our penalty box but when we have the ball, we must make the most of it and not just have the ball to kick it away and wait for them to come back and attack us. I’m very curious to see how we will be able to manage these kind of games.”

“What I ask of my players is always the same. It’s normal that the match will be defined by moments but when we have our moments, we must be ready to play our idea of football. After, if we have to suffer, if we have to defend, we must work on that, but what I want is that when we have the ball, we must show the personality to create something. That is the mentality that we want to show on the pitch.”

“We have to be able to create something when we have set pieces in our favour and when we have to defend in set pieces, we need to be ready and focussed.”

When asked whether the abrupt suspension of the BOV Premier League and the restrictions, due to the COVID measures, on the team in their preparation ahead of this game could affect the team’s morale. Mangia said: “If one is familiar with team sport, they would know that these things have an effect. We have to look forward and focus on managing what we can manage and not on what we cannot. We have to think only about the game and not about these things. I would have preferred that the players played their last league game before joining us. As national team coach, I hope to watch my players play with their clubs until the end of the championship.”

This will be the first of two triple-headers – the other scheduled for September when Malta will host Cyprus before travelling to Slovenia and Russia.

“This happened in October and November as well but it was different as one was a friendly match. We have to think match by match. We put the best line-up for tomorrow, then think about the second and then the third game,” concluded Devis Mangia.

Photos: Copyright domenic aquilina/MFA

Defender Steve Borg hopes the team continues to build up on the progress shown in the UEFA Nations League last year.

“We know that this is a step-up from the UEFA Nations League. I hope we continue on this journey we started a year ago and hopefully we will achieve more positive results and great performances.”

For these three matches, Mangia named a thirty-man squad which features three foreign-based players – Zach Muscat of Casa Pia in Portugal, Teddy Teuma who led Union Saint-Gilliose to the Belgian First Division and Luke Gambin who plays for Newport County.

The only uncapped players in the squad are Hibernians goalkeeper Matthew Calleja Cremona and Gzira United trio Nikolai Muscat, Dexter Xuereb and Nevin Portelli. Portelli is one of the younger players in the squad along with Kurt Shaw and nineteen year olds Alex Satariano, Jan Busuttil and Paul Mbong.

Missing from the squad are the injured Jean Borg of Valletta and Jean Paul Farrugia of Sliema Wanderers.

Photos: Copyright domenic aquilina/MFA

Mangia is not expected to make much changes from the team which faced the Faroe Islands in November with Henry Bonello in goal, Stee Borg, Andrei Agius, Kurt Shaw or Zach Muscat at the back; Matthew Guillaumier and Teddy Teuma in midfield with Joseph Mbong and Ryan Camenzuli on the flanks; Luke Gambin and Jurgen Degabriele supporting Luke Montebello in attack.

The players selected by Mangia and his assistants Davide Mazzotta and Guillermo Giacomazzi are:

Henry Bonello (Valletta); Matthew Calleja Cremona (Hibernians); Jake Galea (Sliema Wanderers).

Andrei Agius (Hibernians); Steve Borg (Gżira United); Karl Micallef (Ħamrun Spartans); Zach Muscat (Casa Pia AC – Portugal); Enrico Pepe (Birkirkara); Kurt Shaw (Sliema Wanderers).

Myles Beerman (Sliema Wanderers); Ryan Camenzuli (Floriana); Triston Caruana (Valletta); Juan Corbalan (Ħamrun Spartans); Matthew Guillaumier (Ħamrun Spartans); Bjorn Kristensen (Hibernians); Joseph Mbong (Ħamrun Spartans); Nikolai Muscat (Gżira United); Steven Pisani (Gżira United); Nevin Portelli (Gżira United); Teddy Teuma (Royale Union Saint-Gilloise – Belgium); Dexter Xuereb (Gżira United).

Jan Busuttil (Floriana); Jurgen Degabriele (Hibernians); Shaun Dimech (Valletta); Luke Gambin (Newport County AFC – England); Jake Grech (Hibernians); Paul Mbong (Birkirkara); Luke Montebello (Birkirkara); Kyrian Nwoko (Valletta); Alexander Satariano (Sliema Wanderers).

Meanwhile, ranked 39th in the FIFA World Ranking, Russia are one of the finalists in the EURO 2020, rescheduled for this summer. They placed second in Group B3 of the UEFA Nations League last year, placing three points behind group winners Hungary and two points ahead of Serbia and Turkey.

They failed to win any of their last six matches, losing 1-2 to Sweden in a friendly match and being held in two draws at home with Turkey and Hungary and following a goalless draw in a friendly match against Moldova in Chisinau, they lost away from home to Turkey and Serbia. Therefore they hope the Malta game will provide them the chance to bounce back ahead of the home clash with Slovenia on Saturday and the match away from home against Slovakia on Tuesday.

The team led by coach Stanisav Cherchesov – the former Russia goalkeeper who played in the match from the Malta International Tournament in 1996 when Russia had defeated Malta 2-0 – is made up mainly of players who ply their trade in the Russian Premier League. The only exceptions are Antalyaspor’s Fyodor Kudryashov, Sandhausen’s Aleksandr Zhirov, Monaco’s Aleksandr Golovin and Atalanta’s Aleksei Miranchuk.

The players selected by Cherchesov are:

Goalkeepers:  Anton Shunin (Dynamo Moscow), Andrey Lunyov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Yuri Dupin (Rubin Kazan).

Defenders:  Georgy Jikia (Spartak Moscow), Yuri Zhirkov, Vyacheslav Karavaev (both Zenit St. Petersburg), Alexander Zhirov (Sandhausen – Germany), Fedor Kudryashov (Antalyaspor Turkey), Roman Neustadter (Dynamo Moscow), Ilya Samoshnikov (Rubin Kazan), Andrey Semenov (Akhmat Grozny), Igor Smolnikov (Krasnodar), Mario Fernandez (CSKA Moscow), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow).

Midfielders:  Ilzat Akhmetov (CSKA Moscow), Alexander Golovin (Monaco – France), Rifat Zhemaletdinov, Maksim Mukhin (both Lokomotiv Moscow), Alexey Ionov (FC Krasnodar), Daler Kuzyaev, Andrey Mostovoy (both Zenit St. Petersburg), Resiuan Mirzov (Khimki), Alexey Miranchuk (Atalanta – Italy), Daniil Fomin (Dynamo Moscow).  

Forwards:  Artem Dzyuba (Zenit St. Petersburg), Anton Zabolotny (FC Sochi), Alexander Sobolev (Spartak Moscow).

The match will be controlled by Danish officials, namely referee Peter Kjaesgaard, assistant referees Victor Skytte and Jesper Dahl and fourth official Morten Krogh.