Malta hosts Croatia in penultimate test from European Qualifiers

Following the dramatic 2-2 draw against Cyprus in Larnaca, the Malta national team hosts Croatia in the penultimate match from Group H of the European Qualifiers leading to the 2022 FIFA World Cup at the National Stadium on Thursday, kick-off at 20:45.

This will definitely be another difficult test for Devis Mangia’s side considering that Croatia, currently ranked number 18, are battling out with Russia for the top spot in the group. A 2-2 draw with Slovakia in Osijek last month saw them fall two points behind Russia but with a win against Malta and another win at home to Russia in Split on Sunday, they would end their commitments on top of Group H.

Photos: Copyright domenic aquilina / Malta FA

Devis Mangia is well aware of the strength of Malta’s opponents but insisted that his players will try to play their game.

“Croatia is one of the best teams in the world but we have to remain focussed on the performance. We have to try to play our game … we will definitely have to suffer sometimes, in some part of the game but when possible, we have to have our personality to play our football. But definitely without any kind of pressure.”

“They like to control the game. There are several players that can make the difference. We have to be ready to read some situation which can happen as there are players which can invent something in any moment. You have to be able to read the situation. I think that we prepared in the right way but then on the pitch, something different can happen and so we have to be ready to adapt ourselves to solve some situation that can happen. But we need to have the personality to be ready when we have our moments in the game.”

“We have to play our game, trying to avoid the mistakes that, in the game against Slovenia, facilitated their job. We know that they have good players. We played a good game there … in Croatia, but then there were three situations which changed the game. I want my players to try to play our football.”

“With regards to that game, we have to restart from the perfect attitude we had there for the first sixty minutes. That is the starting point for us. Yesterday we had one of the best training sessions since we started to work together. As regards my players, I have no doubts.”

Croatia have to beat Malta in order to remain on track for automatic qualification but Malta coach Devis Mangia does not feel that Croatia will be under pressure and that this could make a difference in Thursday’s game.

“They have many expert players of a high level. I do not think that this could make the difference. The difference can be the performance of the two teams. We have to be focussed on ourselves and play our game. I do not want my players to feel any kind of pressure. We have to play our football and enjoy playing against such a kind of team.”

The campaign so far has been a positive one with five points obtained from the eight matches played so far. A record number of points which has been matched and a new record could be established in case of a positive result in any of these two games.

“Everybody has to be happy for what we did. We have these two games in which as usual, we have to do our best without any kind of pressure and try to play our football.”

“Thinking as a team was fundamental in each game and it was the first thing we focussed on when we started to work here … that we had to work collectively as a team to be compact on the pitch, in all phases of the game.”

For this game and the one that follows, against Slovakia on Sunday, the Malta coach has once again at his disposal a number of players who missed the last game or games. Matthew Guillaumier is back in squad after missing the two friendly matches in May/June and the last five qualifiers due to an injury. Juan Corbolan also returns to the squad after missing out on the October call-up due to an injury. Andrei Agius and Bjorn Kristensen earned a call-up after being left out of the squad due to disciplinary measures while Joseph Mbong and Alexander Satariano are back after serving a one-match ban.

On the other hand, Steve Borg is ruled out injured while St. Johnstone defender James Brown had to postpone once again his debut with the Malta national team due to an injury.

Devis Mangia admitted that he still has some doubts on the selection.

“There are two, three situations which we need to evaluate because there are players who have some small problems and there are others that are not in a condition to play two games in four days. We have to consider this and make an evaluation. Usually, I like to be focussed only on the first game but in this situation, we have players that cannot play ninety minutes and ninety minutes or a big part of one game and a big part of the other as they are not in a condition to do this.”

Bjorn Kristensen said he was honoured to be back in in the national squad.

“No player has a guaranteed place and one always has to give his hundred percent. This will be another difficult game but the team worked hard for the past days and aim at giving their hundred percent.”

The full squad at the disposal of Devis Mangia is made up of:
goalkeepers Henry Bonello (Hamrun), Cain Formosa (San Gwann), Jake Galea (Balzan), Matthew Grech (Pembroke Athleta);

defenders Andrei Agius (Hibs), Jean Borg (Valletta), Triston Caruana (Valletta), Karl Micallef (Hamrun), Zach Muscat (Casa Pia), Enrico Pepe (Birkirkara), Kurt Shaw (Sliema);

midfielders Cain Attard (Birkirkara), Ryan Camenzuli (Floriana), Juan Carlos Corbalan (Hamrun), Matthew Guillaumier (Hamrun), Bjorn Kristensen (Hibs), Adam Magri Overend (Floriana), Joseph Mbong (Hamrun), Steve Pisani (Gzira), Nevin Portelli (Gzira), Teddy Teuma (Union Saint Gilloise), Dunstan Vella (Hibs)

forwards Jurgen Degabriele (Hibs), Shaun Dimech (Valletta), Luke Gambin (Hamrun), Jake Grech (Hibs), Paul Mbong (Birkirkara), Luke Montebello (Birkirkara), Alex Satariano (Frosinone).

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said “We know that two victories separate us from the World Cup in Qatar, and our thoughts are focused on Malta. It is an opponent that we respect to the maximum, but of course we are the favorites because we are of better quality in every segment of the game. However, we have to show that on the field and play a good and serious game. We have to be patient, only the three points are important, how to get them is less important. So, first Malta and only then we can start thinking about Russia.”

“Yesterday, three players skipped training with the rest of the team, Brekalo, Livaja and Sučić worked individually. We will see their condition, we took 27 players to Malta because of those things, injuries, coronavirus tests, we didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Against Malta we need offensive players in the first place and in that direction we will set up the game and determine the players who will be on the bench.”

With regards to Luka Modric, Dalic said that he did train but COVID left a little mark on the player. However, he said that if he is OK and if everything goes well, he will start the game against Malta.”

“It would be nice to open the game with an early goal, but the most important thing is not to get nervous if that doesn’t happen. We had more than an hour of fighting in Rijeka, the Maltese held on for a long time, Cyprus too, the whole half. So, in no case should we get into nervousness and panic if we don’t score a goal on time. I told the players that, we have to be brave, and at the same time I think we have to overcome all the temptations we may face. It would be nice if we secured three points as soon as possible so that we could rest some players, but I don’t think that way.”

Malta hosted Croatia four times at Ta’ Qali. Croatia won 4-1 in a EURO 2000 qualifier in October 1998 while in September 2005, in a match from the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, Malta held Croatia in a 1-1 draw with Stephen Wellman notching the equaliser mid-way through the second half. A draw which put Croatia at risk of missing out on qualification for the World Cup. In a EURO 2012 qualifier in September 2011, Croatia won 3-1 while in October 2015, in a match from the EURO 2016 qualifiers, a goal by Ivan Perisic handed Croatia a narrow win.

Malta vs Croatia will be controlled by German officials, namely referee Deniz Aytekin, assistant referees Christian Dietz and Dominik Schaal, Video Assistant Referee Christian Dingert, Assistant Video Assistant Referee Günter Perl and fourth official Florian Badstübner.

Meanwhile the Malta FA, in conjunction with the Malta Police Force, would like to inform the general public, that in view of the match between Malta and Croatia (20:45), the ring road surrounding the National Stadium will be closed for traffic.  The ring road will not be accessible. 

The road adjacent to the Ta’ Qali dog park will be closed for traffic (except for those holding a parking permit) as from 17:00 onwards. 

The area in front of the Centenary Stadium will be solely dedicated to away supporters and thus home supporters cannot access the area behind the North Stand.