Tough test for Malta as Michele Marcolini makes his debut in clash with North Macedonia

Malta will be making its first appearance in Group C of the European Qualifiers leading to EURO 2024, facing North Macedonia at the Toše Proeski Arena in Skopje on Thursday, kick-off at 20:45.

This match will be marking the debut for new Malta national teams head coach Michele Marcolini who took over following the resignation of Devis Mangia.

Addressing the media on Wednesday, Marcolini admitted this will be no easy game.

“We know that this is a tough game, actually a tough group, however, we will try our best.”

Photos courtesy of Mark Zammit Cordina

In fact, Malta was drawn in a group which includes European champions Italy, who are also one of the finalists in the UEFA Nations League in June; England who were the losing finalists in EURO 2020 and reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in December and Ukraine, apart from North Macedonia.

Marcolini, a former player of Bari, Vicenza, Atalanta and Chievo, among other clubs, and former coach of Alessandria, AlbinoLeffe and Chievo Verona, had a first opportunity to take a good look at thirty-six locally-based players during a mini-training camp in February. Two weeks ago, he named a thirty one man squad which was eventually trimmed to twenty four earlier this week.

The only new face in the squad is that of Gzira United central defender Luke Tabone while Yannick Yankam of Birkirkara is back after a long spell.

Jurgen Degabriele withdrew from the squad due to an injury sustained during the last league game. Enrico Pepe and Steve Pisani were also dropped from the squad for the same reason while Triston Caruana, Dunstan Vella, Adam Magri Overend, Matias Nicolas Garcia and Luke Montebello die not make the final cut.

There are four foreign-based players in the squad, namely Zach Muscat of Farense, James Brown of St. Johnston, Teddy Teuma – the captain of Union Saint Gilloise and Jodi Felice Jones of Notts County.

“I am very happy with the team’s efforts and commitment during the past days and am looking forward to start this new adventure together.”

The players at the disposal of Marcolini are:

goalkeepers Henry Bonello (Hamrun Spartans FC), Cain Formosa (Valletta FC), Matthew Grech (Sirens FC);
defenders Ferdinando Apap (Hibernians FC), Luke Tabone (Gzira FC), Steve Borg (Hamrun Spartans FC), Karl Micallef (Gudja United), James Brown (St. Johnston FC – SCO), Zach Muscat (Farense – POR);
midfielders Juan Corbalan (Hamrun Spartans FC), Ryan Camenzuli (Hamrun Spartans FC), Matthew Guillaumier (Hamrun Spartans FC), Cain Attard (Birkirkara FC), Nikolai Muscat (Gzira United), Bjorn Kristensen (Hibernians FC), Brandon Diego Paiber (Valletta FC), Yannick Yankam (Birkirkara FC), Teddy Teuma (R.U. Saint Gilloise – BEL), Joseph Mbong (Hamrun Spartans FC);
forwards Shaun Dimech (Valletta FC), Jodi Felice Jones (Notts Country – ENG), Kyrian Nwoko (Santa Lucia FC), Paul Mbong (Birkirkara FC), Alexander Satariano (Balzan FC).

Speaking about Thursday’s game, Michele Marcolini said “Malta is a small country and we will respect our opponents, however football is played on the pitch and anything can happen. The players have to play, be brave and face the opponents without fear.”

Taking over from Devis Mangia is definitely no easy task, considering the improvement registered over the past three years.

Defender Steve Borg explained that the players have settled along well with the new coaching staff.

“Although we have prepared well as a team, we are aware that every tournament is challenging. Nevertheless, we will work hard to get ready for the upcoming eight games.”

“We are totally focussed on tomorrow’s game against North Macedonia and will start to think about Italy once that game is over,” added Steve Borg.

In 2022, Malta played ten match, registering five wins – the two UEFA Nations League matches against San Marino and the friendly matches against Azerbaijan, Kuwait and Israel, drew once – 2-2 with Greece, losing to Venezuela in a friendly match, the two UEFA nations League matches against Estonia and a friendly match against Ireland in November.

North Macedonia, on the other hand, defeated Italy in the World Cup play-off but then lost to Portugal in the play-offs final in March. In the UEFA Nations League, they started off with an away draw with Bulgaria and an away win over Gibraltar but after losing at home to Georgia, they defeated Gibraltar at home, losing the other two UEFA Nations League matches away from home against Georgia and at home to Bulgaria. In three friendly matches, they lost to Saudi Arabia, drew with Finland and lost to Azerbaijan.

Macedonian A national team coach Blagoja Milevski’s squad is made up mainly of players who play with a number of clubs around Europe including Napoli’s Elif Elmas and Burnley’s Darko Churlinov. Former Birkirkara and Balzan goalkeeper Kristijan Naumovski is also part of the squad.

The Macedonian squad is made up of:
goalkeepers Stole Dimitrievski (Rayo Vallecano), Damjan Shishkovski (Doxa), Kristijan Naumovski (Shkupi), Igor Aleksovski (Rabotnicki);
defenders Stefan Ristovski (Dinamo Zagreb); Ezgjan Alioski (Fenerbahçe); Kire Ristevski (Pyunik); Visar Musliu (Ingolstadt); Darko Velkovski (Al-Ettifaq); Egzon Bejtulai (Shkëndija); Gjoko Zajkov (Universitatea Craiova); Vladica Brdarovski (Shkupi); Bojan Dimoski (Akademija Pandev);
midfielders Enis Bardhi (Trabzonspor); Elif Elmas (Napoli); Arijan Ademi (Beijing Guoan); Stefan Ashkovski (Lamia); Darko Churlinov (Burnley); David Babunski (Mezőkövesd); Jani Atanasov (Cracovia); Valon Ethemi (İstanbulspor); Agon Elezi (Varaždin); Davor Zdravkovski (AEL); forwards Aleksandar Trajkovski (Al-Fayha); Ilija Nestorovski (Udinese); Milan Ristovski (Spartak Trnava); Bojan Miovski (Aberdeen).

Speaking on Wednesday, Milevski said “We have the maximum respect for the opponent, but I will emphasize that all that will happen in the match depends largely on ourselves. Looking at how the guys look, I’m more than confident that we’re going to head off successfully in these qualifications.”

Malta and Macedonia met six times with the latter winning five of the games. In two friendly matches in 1996, Macedonia won 1-0 at home and 2-0 at Ta’ Qali. Malta was then drawn with Macedonia in the EURO 2000 qualifiers, losing 4-0 in Skopje and 1-2 at Ta’ Qali. The two teams met in a friendly match in 2002 with Macedonia winning 5-0 in Skopje while in 2010, in another friendly match, the two teams drew 1-1 at Ta’ Qali.