The Maltese Under-17 team responded well to their tough tournament opener against favourites Spain on Wednesday by giving Slovakia a good match on Saturday, with the visitors beating Malta by a solitary second half goal.
Although the Slovaks saw more of the ball, Malta grew into the match and produced a late rally to save a point. Throughout the match, the team surged forward whenever possible with neat attacks and were a few times close to score.
Malta national Under-17 team coach Francesco Macri changed his started line-up on four places when compared with the tournament opener. The biggest changes were up front, as Emerson Piscopo and Denzil Muscat were replaced by Nathan Zerafa and Claude Mercieca. Furthermore, the Italian mentor roped in Ismael and Jayden Vella from the start, both in midfield, instead of Jake Attard and Lydon Seychell.
Slovakia opened well and Malta goalkeeper James Sissons was called into action after five minutes, diving to save a David Bukovsky grounder, while two minutes later the Melita custodian was again on the alert to prevent Matus Pavlik from scoring the opener.
However, Malta played with flair and courage, resulting in a goalscoring opportunity on 24 minutes when Jayden Vella ran down the left flank to cross towards the unmarked Adam Vella who aimed too high, the best opportunity of the hosts before half-time and in the attack, the Slovaks showed some vulnerability in the back.
On 34 minutes, Slovakian captain Simon Vlna had an attempt from the edge of the box but it was again Sissons who saved comfortably. Moments later, Sissons did again well to turn a Filip Trello attempt into a corner. On the other side on 42 minutes, the Slovakian defence blocked an on-target attempt of Claude Mercieca after another well played-out attack of the home-side.
Five minutes after the re-start, the Slovaks broke the deadlock when Trello combined well with Denis Valko, with the former beating Sissons from close-range, an action which proved to be decisive.
On 68 minutes, Sissons was tested again, this time by Samuel Kovacik, turning his attempt into a corner. From the resultant setpiece, Pavlik’s header was again blocked splendidly by Sissons, who kept his team in the match at this stage.
With ten minutes regular time left, substitute Denzil Muscat nearly capitalised on a Slovakian defensive error in their built-up, but hesitated too long before shooting and his attempt was blocked. This was during a period that the Maltese were clearly pushing for an equaliser, as not much later, Thomas Melillo’s 20-meter scorcher missed target by an inch from a corner action. But despite this late rally, Malta failed to find the net with the Slovaks progressing to the elite round next year.
Earlier today, Spain beat North Macedonia 5-0 and are heading the ranking shared with the Slovaks to book their place in the elite round as well. Malta will now face the Macedonians on Tuesday morning at the same venue, kick off 11h. Even when Malta should beat the Balkan side, qualification will be hard as only the results of the third-placed teams in all 13 groups against the first and second-placed teams in their group are considered for qualification. Only the five best numbers three qualify.
Malta James Sissons, Adam Vella (Shaun Xiberras 61), Sheldon Borg, Shelom Magri, Jayden Vella, Luke Bugeja (Andreas Vella 68), Jerome Baldacchino (Denzil Muscat 61), Ismael Vella, Thomas Melillo, Claude Mercieca (Nathan Joyce 77), Nathan Zerafa (Emerson Piscopo 77).
Slovakia Sebastian Zajac, Matus Pavlik, Dominik Balog, Kristian Strucka (Karol Blasko 60), Martin Turansky, Alex Kis (Alex Barilla 74), Filip Trello (Martin Hlavaty 84), Simon Vlna, David Bukovsky (Alexander Velky 74), Denis Valko (Jakub Pira 60), Samuel Kovacik.
Referee Antoni Bandic (Bosnia Herzegovina)