Malta takes on Northern Ireland in a friendly match at the Wörthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt on Sunday, kick-off at 18:00, in the first of three important tests ahead of the remaining European Qualifiers in programme between September and November.
Just three weeks after the BOV Premier League was brought to an abrupt conclusion following the decision by health authorities to ban organised sports, Malta played the first three matches from Group H, losing 1-3 to Russia at Ta’ Qali, holding Slovakia in a 2-2 draw in Trnava before losing 3-0 to Croatia in Rijeka. A lot of positive could be drawn from the three matches – in particular the second half against Russia, the brilliant first half against Slovakia and the first sixty minutes of the clash with Croatia.
Photos: Copyright www.stephengatt.com/Malta FA
The ban on training was lifted on May 10 and therefore the national team could resume its preparation ahead of the remaining qualifiers, starting from the home match against Cyprus on September 1 and the two matches away from home against Slovenia and Russia away from home.
Complementing the training camp in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria are the three friendly matches against Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Kazakhstan. The matches against Northern Ireland and Kosovo were added on the eleventh hour after Northern Ireland had to cancel a friendly match against Turkey after Turkey was placed on the UK government’s red list for travel while Kosovo were due to play against Kazakhstan but the latter were denied permission by their government to travel to Pristina.
Addressing the media on Saturday, Mangia said “We worked in a good way. These three matches are important for us. We will focus first on the match against Northern Ireland. The question mark for me is our physical condition considering that we have players who have not played an official match for two months, others three. Maybe everything will be OK, maybe we will have some problems. The problem has to become another opportunity. The result is important but even more is the performance, especially of some players in this kind of games.”
“We will not change our philosophy of football. We can change something about the strategy of the game, considering the system our opponents will use. They use a different system than the three teams that we played against in the qualifiers. We can change something about the strategy not the philosophy or our ideas.”
“I want to see some confirmations from some players about their performances but we will have the opportunity to check other players as well. We have three games and I think that everyone will have the opportunity to show their skills. I see some good things in training but in the match, it is different and therefore I need to watch some players in a match or part of a match. “
“We will have the opportunity to improve in set-pieces. We have to improve as we know we made some mistakes in some games. I do not want to change just to change but want to give the opportunity to all the players, especially the ones who I know a bit less the change to do well. I do not want to change ten players in a game as this could contribute to losing some confidence as it clear that some players have been with us for a long time and others who are practically new. We need to give them the opportunity to show their skills. We have three games and we will manage. Between the first and second game, there is enough space to recover but between the second and the third, no, as we play after three days.”
Mangia stressed that the team will not be a completely changed side. “I need to have some confirmations from the players that I know but we will put one, two new players in the first eleven in the first game. Then we have the second game and the third. Before we used some players in some friendlies but these are a different kind of friendly matches with all due respect for Gibraltar and Liechtenstein. This will be an opportunity to check some players in these tough games.”
Players like Steve Borg, Zach Muscat, Matthew Guillaumier, Luke Gambin, Paul Mbong and Kyrian Nwoko, who had all featured in the last three World Cup qualifiers, did not make the trip to Austria. Mangia also revealed that Enrico Pepe would not be included in Sunday’s game.
However this does not worry the Malta national coach. “We will play in eleven. I have full trust in the players who are here. If not, they would not be here. They deserve to be here and so I believe in them.”
With Borg, Guillaumier and Pepe ruled out, Mangia will make at least three changes to the team which lost to Croatia. Andrei Agius should be back in the heart of defence along with Kurt Shaw and Jean Borg or Ferdinando Apap. Luke Montebello and Jurgen Degabriele should also be included up front.
Midfielder Bjorn Kristensen added “We worked hard together. We were all focussed on our goal – to improve our fitness. In the past three days in Austria, we worked tactically and physically and it is our main target that on Sunday, we reach our goals.”
With regards to the inclusion of a number of younger players in the squad, the Hibernians midfielder said “The young players give us the energy and we have the experience and so it is obviously a good mix that will help the team move forward. “
The players at the disposal of Devis Mangia are:
goalkeepers Henry Bonello (Valletta); Matthew Calleja Cremona (Hibernians); Jake Galea (Sliema Wanderers).
defenders Andrei Agius (Hibernians); Ferdinando Apap (Hibernians); Jean Borg (Valletta); Karl Micallef (Ħamrun Spartans); Enrico Pepe (Birkirkara); Kurt Shaw (Sliema Wanderers).
midfielders Cain Attard (Birkirkara); Ryan Camenzuli (Floriana); Triston Caruana (Valletta); Juan Corbalan (Ħamrun Spartans); Bjorn Kristensen (Hibernians); Joseph Mbong (Ħamrun Spartans); Nikolai Muscat (Gżira United); Rowen Muscat (Valletta); Steven Pisani (Gżira United); Teddy Teuma (Royale Union Saint-Gilloise – Belgium); Dunstan Vella (Hibernians); Dexter Xuereb (Gżira United); Yannick Yankam (Birkirkara).
forwards Jurgen Degabriele (Hibernians); Shaun Dimech (Valletta); Jean Paul Farrugia (Sliema Wanderers); Aidan Friggieri (Gudja United); Jake Grech (Hibernians); Luke Montebello (Birkirkara); Alexander Satariano (Sliema Wanderers).
Meanwhile although Northern Ireland failed to win any of their last thirteen matches, obtaining five draws, they were participating in the UEFA Nations League B last year and are ranked 48th. They just missed out on a place in the EURO 2020 after losing 1-2 to Slovakia after extra-time in one of the play-offs.
Nineteen year old Chelsea defender Sam McClelland and eighteen year old Liverpool defender Conor Bradley have been called up to the Northern Ireland squad for the first time by manager Ian Baraclough. Young Liverpool goalkeeper Liam Hughes has also retained his place in the squad. The Liverpool pair and McClelland are the only uncapped players in the group.
The squad also features several experienced players, including Leeds United midfielder Stuart Dallas, Kilmarnock striker Kyle Lafferty, Hull City forward Josh Magennis, Watford defender Craig Cathcart, Aberdeen winger Niall McGinn, Middlesbrough defender/midfielder Paddy McNair and Millwall midfielder Shane Ferguson. In-form Linfield striker Shayne Lavery, who has scored more than 30 goals this season to help his side secure the double, is also part of the squad along with two young players, Manchester United midfielder Ethan Galbraith and Leeds United midfielder Alfie McCalmont. Returning to the group after a lengthy absence is winger Jordan Jones and striker Paul Smyth.
Among the regulars not to be included in the squad are captain Steven Davis, vice-captain Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Conor McLaughlin, Jamal Lewis, Michael Smith, Michael McGovern, Conor Washington and Trevor Carson.
Malta and Northern Ireland met seven times with the latter winning five games and two ending in draws – a 1-1 draw in August 2004 and a goalless draw in February 2013, both friendly matches being played at Ta’ Qali.
Malta vs Northern Ireland will be streamed on tvm.com.mt