When it comes to international football, it is fair to say Malta are not a side ever really expected to do particularly well.
Despite the Nations League run in which Malta were almost promoted to the next stage, they are rated as likely as Andorra, San Marino and New Caledonia to win the World Cup by Bwin. Indeed Latvia, who were behind Malta in the Nations League table, are five times as likely to win the top prize in Qatar. Whilst the footballing world simply expects them to make up the numbers, there is always hope that they could make significant progress, even if qualification is highly unlikely.
The Nations League result which really stands out is the 1-0 victory in Latvia, courtesy of Steve Borg’s last-gasp winner. That sparked jubilant scenes in the dressing room and inspired the team to further big wins against Liechtenstein (3-0) and Andorra (3-1), before the agonizing draw with the Faroe Islands which prevented them from grabbing a Nations League promotion. Whilst missing out on stepping up was a blow, it also sets the stage nicely for an unpredictable Qatar qualification campaign.
With no major tournament experience, the boys in red are seemingly always there to just make up the numbers in World Cup and EURO qualifiers as bigger countries battle for the right to perform on the biggest stages. On March 24, at Ta’ Qali, Russia were looking to get their qualification for Qatar 2022 off to a flying start.
In the European Qualifiers, the first match was against Russia. The odds were with the hosts of the last World Cup, but bizarrely the form book was not, thanks to Malta’s relatively successful Nations League campaign. Mangia’s side were unbeaten in their previous seven matches, picking up four wins and three draws in their last seven matches, whilst Russia had not won in six. That unbeaten run improved upon the previous record of six matches, set back in 2002.
Russia emerged as winners, 3-1 but it was not easy as it seems with the Maltese impressing during the second half. With Group H also containing Cyprus, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia, qualifying looks tough even for Stanislav Cherchesov’s men, let alone the minnows managed by Devis Mangia.
Four games, four defeats was the record against Slovakia, another team that featured in the World Cup 2018 qualification stages. However in Trnava, the Maltese played a brilliant first half, taking a two-goal lead although Slovakia came back to earn a point with two goals early in the second half.
Next in line was Croatia – runner up at the 2018 World Cup. They have appeared in Malta’s qualifying groups four times, for the 2000, 2012 and 2016 European Champions, and the 2006 World Cup. Their last meeting, on October 13, 2015, was a narrow affair in which a solitary Ivan Perisic goal gave Croatia victory. Malta’s best result against Croatia was a 1-1 draw, back in 2005. This time in Rijeka, the Maltese kept the hosts at bay during the first half but the inclusion of veterans Perisic and Modric during the first half made the whole difference as they scored two of the three goals.
However, all in all, considering that Malta had to play three matches in a week and the high tempo at which such games are played, the performance was definitely satisfactory apart from the fact that an unexpected point was collected against Slovakia.
The next three games are scheduled for September as Malta hosts Cyprus before two matches away from home against Slovenia and Russia.
Malta and Slovenia have twice been pitted against each other in qualification stages since, for the 2004 European Champions and the 2018 World Cup. On all four occasions, Slovenia won.
That leaves Cyprus, the side that Mangia might feel his team are well placed to defeat. Their Nations League campaign was a disaster, with defeats against Montenegro (4-0, 2-0), Azerbaijan (1-0) and Luxembourg (2-0) contributing to a spot in the relegation play-offs to League D. Sadly, history is not on Malta’s side again, with only a solitary 1-0 win back in 1988 to show for their six clashes. The most recent meetings between the two came in the qualifying rounds for Euro 2004 when Cyprus managed two narrow 2-1 wins. The final meeting between the two saw Malta reduced to 10 men after Saviour Darmanin was sent off on 23 minutes, with Cyprus scoring the resulting penalty.
On reflection, finishing anywhere other than the bottom of the group would be an achievement for the side ranked 175 in the world. However, with the strong Nations League showing, and a potential backdoor into Euro 2024 thanks to the complicated qualification process that handed North Macedonia their first major tournament appearance, things could still be looking up for the team that most teams expect to beat, and some may underestimate this year.