Malta hosts Ukraine, hoping for an improved performance

After suffering a sixth defeat in as many matches, losing 4-0 to Italy, Malta entertains Ukraine in another match from Group C of the European Qualifiers leading to EURO 2024 qualifying round at the National Stadium on Tuesday, kick-off at 20:45.

Following Saturday’s match, the general feeling of many fans was that the team reverted to a defensive mentality – focussing more on trying to concede goals rather than trying to create scoring opportunity as we were getting used to in recent campaigns.

However Malta coach Michele Marcolini insisted this was not the case.

“I think that no one who was involved on Saturday was pleased with the game against Italy – especially with the result. I think we did well in the first twenty, twenty five minutes until we conceded the goal and lost composure. In the beginning, we showed that we could be of a threat but as time went on, we did this much less and during the second half, even less. When something like this happens, teams like Italy will crush you.”

“The players are obviously eager to bounce back, and even I. I have never been a defensive-minded coach and in fact, my teams always had a high average number of goals scored and low number of goals conceded. But one has to be honest and admit who our opponents were.”

Photos courtesy of domenic aquilina

“One has to stress that my players’ reaction in the opening minutes was definitely positive as it is not easy for them, when you are not used to playing in front of fifty six thousand spectators, against a team which mentally was going through a difficult situation and which was therefore eager to react strongly. When you are facing a team who is mentally focussed on its objectives and has the strength and energy to achieve it, it is difficult to create chances. However, we need to analyse things, as we did in the past days, not only accept the fact that they were a stronger side. We know we could do better and I am the first to admit this and assume the responsibility. When the team loses, I am the first to take the blame and if this means taking pressure off my players, this is definitely not a problem.”

“We need to grow. What we did during the first twenty minutes – avoid suffering the pressure …. we need to keep on doing. When we attack, may be, we need to worry less about what would happen if we lose the ball. We need to be more free mentally,” said Marcolini.

“However, as it was the case against England, I have great respect for our opponents. We try to analyse well what happened and change things so that in the game against Ukraine, we play a better game. We will try to be more aggressive and not lose ground, creating more problems for our opponents. When we have the chance to create, we need to have the personality and willingness to threat our opponents.”

Since Marcolini took over as coach, Malta probably played one of the best matches against Ukraine in June, creating several chances and losing by one goal after conceding a penalty. Since then Ukraine confirmed themselves as a major contender for the runner-up spot in the group.

“For sure, Ukraine need a win from this game in the battle with Italy for second place. In the match away from home against Ukraine, we played a very good game although we played with the same system as we did against Italy. However sometimes the attitude depends on what your opponents allow you to do. We always try to play a positive game but it all depends on whether we manage to do that on the field of play. In the game against Ukraine, we had created several chances although unfortunately we failed to score which was my biggest regret as we definitely deserved to score at least one goal. We only conceded the goal through a penalty late in the game, giving Ukraine a hard time throughout the ninety minutes. I hope we would repeat that performance in terms of quality and aggressiveness, trying to score in order to achieve a positive result.”

“Apart from the last game against North Macedonia, Ukraine has been using the same system. In the game away from home, they lacked Mudryk who will probably feature in the first eleven. They had changed their coach a few days before that game and by now, they are more used to playing together and their results reflect that. They lost in Italy last month but after a first half in which they were constantly on the receiving end, although they managed to score, in the second half, they shared the exchanges with their opponents and the game was still open till the very end. They will definitely stay in the hunt for the second place along with Italy, unless we manage to put a spoke in their wheel.”

Birkirkara midfielder Yannick Yankam added that these games are giving players the opportunity to gain experience ahead of next year’s UEFA Nations League campaign.

“It is obviously a massive opportunity for a player to play against some of the best players in the world. You enjoy playing full stadiums full of supporters, perfect pitches and perfect environment to show your talent. From our perspective as players, it is great for us to experience this things. Hopefully we will take this experience with us next year when we play the UEFA Nations League and implement that in those games. The level of competition here is obviously higher. It is a big challenge and that is where you get the opportunity to grow and improve as a player. We relish these challenges and hope to learn from them as much as possible,” said Yankam.

Meanwhile Marcolini admitted he could make some changes from Saturday’s game although he stressed he would not make wholesale changes. Jodi Jones and Teddy Teuma did not recover from the injuries sustained with their clubs and therefore did not make the trip. However, on the plus side, is the return of captain Steve Borg who served a one-match ban. There are no other injury concerns.

The full squad at the disposal of the Malta coach is made up of:

Goalkeepers Henry Bonello (Hamrun Spartans FC), Rashed Al Tumi (Sliema Wanderers FC), Jake Galea (Valletta FC)

Defenders Ferdinando Apap (Hibernians FC), Steve Borg (Hamrun Spartans FC), Zach Muscat (Farense – POR), Enrico Pepe (Birkirkara FC), Kurt Shaw (Hibernians FC), Jean Borg (Sliema Wanderers FC)

Midfielders Juan Corbalan (Hamrun Spartans FC), Cain Attard (CF Os Belenenses – POR), Ryan Camenzuli (Hamrun Spartans FC), Adam Magri Overend (Floriana FC), Steven Pisani (Santa Lucia FC), Matthew Guillaumier (FKS Stal Mielec Spolka Akcyjna – POL), Nikolai Muscat (Marsaxlokk FC), Bjorn Kristensen (Hibernians FC), Brandon Diego Paiber (Valletta FC), Yannick Yankam (Birkirkara FC), Joseph Essien Mbong (Hamrun Spartans FC), Dunstan Vella (Floriana FC)

Forwards Jurgen Degabriele (Hibernians FC), Kyrian Nwoko (Floriana FC), Paul Mbong (Birkirkara FC), Luke Montebello (Hamrun Spartans), Alexander Satariano (Birkirkara FC)    

Ukraine collected ten points from the six matches played so far. After losing 2-0 to England in Wembley, they defeated North Macedonia 3-2 away from home and Malta 1-0 in Slovakia. In Poland, they held England in a 1-1 draw but lost 2-1 to Italy away from home. On Saturday, they defeated North Macedonia 2-0 in Prague. They share second place with Italy, three points behind England and three ahead of North Macedonia.

Coach Serhiy Rebrov has the following players at his disposal:

Goalkeepers: Georgy Bushchan (Dynamo Kyiv), Anatoly Trubin (Benfica, Portugal), Dmytro Riznyk (Shakhtar Donetsk).

Defenders: Mykola Matvienko, Yukhym Konoplia (both Shakhtar Donetsk), Denys Popov, Oleksandr Karavaev (both Dynamo Kyiv), Oleksandr Svatok (Dnipro-1 Dnipro), Vitaly Mykolenko (Everton Liverpool, England), Ilya Zabarny (Bournemouth, England), Bohdan Mykhailichenko (Dynamo Zagreb, Croatia).

Midfielders: Vitaly Buyalskyi (Dynamo Kyiv), Taras Stepanenko, Oleksandr Zubkov, Georgy Sudakov, Yehor Nazarina (all Shakhtar Donetsk), Oleksandr Pikhalyonok (Dnipro-1 Dnipro), Oleksandr Zinchenko (Arsenal, England) , Mykhailo Mudryk (Chelsea, England), Serhiy Sydorchuk (Westerlo, Belgium).

Forwards: Roman Yaremchuk (Valencia, Spain), Artem Dovbyk (Girona, Spain), Vladyslav Vanat (Dynamo Kyiv), Nazariy Rusyn (Sunderland, England).

This will be the third clash between Malta and Ukraine following a 1-0 win for Malta in a friendly match in June 2017 and the 0-1 defeat last June.

Malta vs Ukraine will be controlled by Danish referee Morten Krogh, assisted by D. Wollenberg Rasmussen and Steffen Bramsen, fourth official Mikkel Redder. The Video Assistant Referee is Rob Dieperink from the Netherlands, assisted by Jonas Hansen.