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Watch: Fitness is Mangia’s main concern as Malta take on Northern Ireland

Malta national team players during a training session ahead of today’s match against Northern Ireland. Photo: Stephen Gatt

National teams head coach Devis Mangia said that he is curious to see how his players will respond from a physical point of view as Malta take on Northern Ireland in a friendly international in Klagenfurt on Sunday (kick-off: 18.00).

The match against Northern Ireland is the first of three friendly matches that the national team will be playing during a ten-day training camp in Austria, with the side also scheduled to face warm-up matches against Kosovo and Kazakhstan.

It’s no secret that the fact that all the national team players have been without any form of competitive football for the past two months, after the early closure of national competitions in Malta, has been a major cause of concern for Mangia and the Italian said that he is keen to see how the players will respond against Northern Ireland.

“I have been very pleased with the work carried out by my players in the last few weeks but it’s clear that the real test of our condition are football matches and these friendlies will be very important for us,” Mangia said.

“We start against Northern Ireland and obviously the big question mark is our physical fitness. I am not planning to effect any major changes to our philosophy of football but may be I will try out some new things which can help us for our future matches in the World Cup qualifiers.

“Northern Ireland play a style of football that is completely different to what we have faced so far in the World Cup qualifiers. I have some ideas that I saw in training but it’s important that I see them in the match.”

Northern Ireland, like traditional British sides are known for their aerial prowess particularly in set-pieces. The Maltese players have traditionally struggled to adhere to set-piece defending and Mangia agreed that this match will be a great test to see how much improvement the team has done in this area.

“Aerial play is surely one of the main weapons for Northern Ireland,” Mangia said.

“It’s true that in the recent World Cup qualifiers it was one area where we struggled a lot and the match will represent a good opportunity for us to see if we have improved in this aspect or not. But Northern Ireland are not just about aerial play so we need to be ready in all situations.”

Mangia said that the only player who will not be available for today’s match is Birkirkara defender Enrico Pepe and hinted that he might give the opportunity to some fringe players to show their talent.

“In this match, I want to give to the players that haven’t played with us a lot the opportunity to showcase their skill and to do that they need to spend a good period of time on the pitch,” the former Italy U-21 coach said.

“I don’t want to change players during the match just for the sake of changing. It’s true that we have three matches in a short span of time but we have enough time to recover from the match against Northern Ireland and the second one against Kosovo that will be played on Friday.

“I promise that during this time I will give an opportunity to everyone because I have faith in all the players, if it wasn’t the case they wouldn’t be here.”

On his part, Bjorn Kristensen gave more details on the training regime they were put through by Mangia and the rest of the technical staff.

“In the past few weeks, we have been working very hard to try and improve our condition and try and reach a number of fitness targets,” the Hibernians midfielder said.

“Obviously, we started with some physical work, both in the pitch as well as on the pitch and then gradually we started to integrate fitness training with work with the ball to on the pitch.

“All the players in the team are working together to reach the same target and that is very important. The young players that have come in the group have infused a lot of energy and veteran players like myself try to repay them with our experience to help them settle down quickly and that has worked well so far.”

Kristensen admitted that Northern Ireland’s biggest threat will be their set-piece play and confirmed that in the last few days the players have worked very hard to ensure they are ready for it today.

“In the past couple of days, we worked a lot on set-pieces, particularly when it comes to defending,” Kristensen said.

“We have seen a lot of videos of Northern Ireland and we have a very good idea of what to expect. I can assure everyone that whoever goes on the pitch will do all he can to try and produce a good performance.”

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