As soon as the referee blew the final whistle, most probably the Maltese supporters were expecting to see the players and staff celebrate the emphatic 2-2 draw against 34th-ranked Slovakia.
After all, this was Malta’s first away point in a World Cup qualifier in eight years – the first since the 2013 win over Armenia.
However, while it was their chance to catch some breath after a hard-fought battle, the Maltese contingent seemed to have left the pitch with a sour taste after leading the Slovaks by two goals at the end of the first half.
Obviously, the players will still be pleased with what they produced in Trnava but at the same time, they know they could have preserved their lead in a better way.
This image enhances the mentality that Italian coach Devis Mangia has instilled into the whole environment – to always strive for more.
Mangia was guiding the national team for the 10th time and so far his record has been a superlative one with four wins, four draws, and just two defeats – a last-time minute heartache against the Faroe Islands and against 2018 World Cup quarter-finalists Russia.
What has impressed most is that Mangia managed to fit this team into his vision and despite being in charge for only 10 games, often with preparation hampered due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Maltese team seems already transformed.
“If the players are willing to learn and follow you, you can manage to create what you want,” Mangia said during the post-game press conference.
“Against Slovakia, we started with five players who are of age 24 or younger and that might have had an impact on the game due to experience.
“However, we still decided to use them at this stage which is great for the local game and I believe this is how we can leave an impact on Maltese football.”
One of the young players under 24 years of age and who really enhances Mangia’s vision is Alexander Satariano.
The 19-year-old was given the nod from the start for the first time, collecting his fifth cap in the process.
The Sliema Wanderers player started as the main striker and besides the goal, was essential in the hold-up play, transitions and creating chances. Not bad for a player who until a few seasons ago used to play as a fullback in the Maltese Premier League.
In addition, the changes from one game to another means that Mangia is finding strength in numbers as well.
All this points to Mangia’s courage in taking such bold decisions, without being afraid of remaining exposed by his high-profile opponents at this level.
Moreover, we may have finally found a coach who feels that the Maltese players are not inferior to the foreigners, improving on what the previous technical staff had started to build between 2018 and 2019.
The Italian coach was a bit let down by the goals conceded early in the second half but he feels that against top teams who boast such physical prowess, it is difficult to defend on set-pieces in particular.
Malta had just 36 per cent of possession in this game, meaning that a lot of discipline was required off the ball.
“The risk was after their equaliser and I would have preferred to have a lot more possession so that we could recover while in possession,” the ex-Palermo coach explained.
“It was not always possible for us because we lost a lot of duels against their physical power, putting us a bit under pressure.
“However, I have to tell them ‘bravi’ for the excellent first-half performance and their resilience in the second half.”
Testament to the mentality in this team was the fact that the Maltese avoided a total collapse which unfortunately was the trend in the past years, leading to some heavy defeats.
“Slovakia are more than 100 places ahead of us in the FIFA rankings and that means that there is a huge difference between us,” Mangia added.
“I put the youngsters in the starting formation because I believe in them and if we want to grow, we must trust the process.
“It is always another step for us, even if we have to suffer like we did against Slovakia.”
Under Mangia’s guidance, Malta has found the net 16 times and conceded 11 in 10 games.
Malta had scored just two away goals in the last 16 World Cup qualifiers before the brace in Trnava.
“If you want to achieve a positive result against the elite teams, you have to score,” the former Italy U-21 coach said.
“You have to defend and suffer, of course, but always with the mentality that we can score because otherwise you can forget points. We are always working on this mentality.”
Malta’s next and final meeting for now will be against the runners-up of the previous World Cup, Croatia.
With Luka Modric, who has become the all-time recordman for appearances with 135 caps, set to be absent and the lacklustre performances against Slovenia (1-0 defeat) and Cyprus (1-0 win), Malta might actually dare to dream for a positive result.
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