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Ivan Woods set for tough debut as Malta U-21 coach against Spain

Ivan Woods is set for a debut of fire as he takes charge of the Malta U-21 national team for the first time when they face Spain in their opening European Championship qualifier at the Tony Bezzina Stadium on Friday night (kick-off: 8.45pm).

Woods was named as the new Malta coach last month as he filled the void left by Gilbert Agius. His first assignment is a daunting one as he leads his team against a Spanish team who reached the final of the European Championship finals this summer, only to lose to England 1-0.

“It’s no secret that we start our campaign with a very tough assignment against Spain,” Woods told the Times of Malta.

“We are playing against one of the best teams in the world at U-21 level. A few months ago they reached the European Championship final so it’s going to be a difficult test. But I want my team to try and compete against such a formidable opposition as it will certainly be a great learning curve for my players.

“We can either escape the challenge or try and test ourselves to see how far we can go against a stronger team. This is an opportunity for us to try and play our game and get the best possible result.”

For his first two Group B qualifiers, Woods has drafted in his squad a number of players who formed part of the Malta U-19 squad that played in the European finals in July.

Goalkeeper Hugo Sacco, who is now on the books of US side Eastern New Mexico University, Jake Micallef, Andy Borg, Benjamin Hili, Basil Tuma, of Reading, and Brooklyn Borg have all been selected along with Jed Valletta, who has just joined Sta Lucia from Birkirkara.

“The main reason I have decided to bring this group of players from the Malta U-19 is because I felt that the experience they had playing in the Euro finals will be beneficial for the team,” Woods said.

“If you look at our squad of players there are several players in our squad who for them the match against Spain will be their first competitive match.

“The inclusion of the former Malta U-19 players will not only help us on this matter but also because in the past 12 months they had the opportunity to play against top-quality opponents and that will be beneficial for us in such a difficult match.”

Woods made it clear that those players who failed to make the cut are still in his plans but it was important that they show the desire and will to force their way in.

“It’s clear that those players who failed to make this selection can still push their way back into selection,” Woods said.

“However, it’s important that these players are willing to work hard and improve so that they can convince me that they deserve to be part of our squad.

“The doors of the Malta U-21 team are open to all the players who show the right approach and determination, that is key for me.

“At the moment, the number of U-21 players who are playing regularly in the Maltese top division is decreasing every year. But these difficult moments are very important in the formation of a young player as it’s in these times that one shows his character and becomes mentally stronger.

“So far, the build-up for these matches was very good as the players selected have shown a lot of application and have worked hard. It’s important that they continue to show the will to improve .”

Turning his sights back to the match against Spain, Woods has warned his team that it is important that they keep up their concentration levels throughout the match.

“Spain will be a tough test for us and there will be a lot of spells during the match where we will find ourselves under a lot of pressure and it’s here where the leaders of the team have to come to the fore,” Woods said.

“It’s rare that our players will have the chance to play against such top-quality opponents, so for them, this is an opportunity to show what they are made of. It’s important that the players keep up their concentration level throughout 90 minutes irrespective of what happens on the pitch.

“The only thing we are in control is how we perform and if we play to the best of our ability then a satisfying result will follow so it’s up to us to deliver the best we can.”

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