Malta opened its commitments in the Euro 2024 qualifiers on Thursday with a close 2-1 defeat to North Macedonia in Skopje.
Albeit going home without a point, national teams head coach Michele Marcolini said that he will take back a lot of positives from his debut fixture and will only add resolve to step up their motivation levels in the buildup for his second match in charge, against his home-country Italy on Sunday.
The Maltese side held the North Macedonians at arm’s length throughout the encounter, the home side only stepping up the pressure after the break, and eventually managing to open a two-goal advantage after the hour-mark when Elijif Elmas and Darko Churlinov fired home in quick succession during a lapse in concentration among the Malta players.
However, Malta fought back and managed to get back into the game, even if too late, through Yannick Yankam’s first international goal – a spark that made the North Macedonians sigh with relief at the final whistle.
Speaking to a press conference at the end of the match, Marcolini lauded his players’ efforts claiming that the only drawback of the night was the score.
“Tonight, the only thing which is not good is the final result,” Marcolini admitted.
“We played against a very strong squad. They have some players that made all the difference on the pitch and the match was influenced by them. When (Darko) Churlinov came in, the match changed but it’s normal.
“I’m very proud of my players and I think that they played a very good match. In the first half, we suffered just a little and maybe we had the best chance to score.
“We know that for a lot of people, we are the worst squad in our group. Sometimes maybe they think we are very easy to win against. But I think this evening, we showed that if we play with our heart and with this type of attitude, playing against us could be tough.
“We can’t be happy because when I lose, I’m always angry but I think that this evening people who love the Malta team can be proud of our players because they played a good game.”
On Thursday, Marcolini’s clan came out on the pitch in an attacking formation, playing the ball from the back through the team’s midfield towards its forward line with short, quick passes – an element which showcased the Italian tactician’s modus operandi in spite of higher-ranked opposition.
While North Macedonia, ranked 65th in the world, was a tough opener for both Marcolini and his team’s campaign, Malta now face even bigger opposition in Roberto Mancini’s Italy at the National Stadium.
Asked about keeping this shape and attacking mentality, Marcolini believes it is a question of attitude.
“I hope we can play like this again,” he said, “To be honest, if this evening was a tough game, against Italy it will be a mountain to climb. But we have only to think about our attitude. From the first day, I told my players that it’s not important which team we play against, but we have to show that we give our best in every situation.
“If we suffered a bit with Macedonia, it’s normal and I think we have to suffer a lot against Italy, but we know, and we will start from this knowledge to try and play our best football.”
Race against time
While qualifiers are a race against time to achieve enough points to make the finals, Marcolini believes gaining experience will be key for Malta, especially with the UEFA Nations League commitments just around the corner after these qualifiers.
“For us, it’s important to get experience,” Marcolini said, “to take a point it will be very difficult, but we don’t start these matches thinking about that.
“To be honest, we have nothing to lose because we are the smallest country in the group but why not? We have to show maximum respect towards the teams that we play against, not fear. Football is strange – maybe something amazing could happen.
“It will be difficult, but we have to build a mentality to prepare for next year when we have the Nations League, and this is our principal goal. But about next year we will think later, now we have to think about Italy.”
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