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Clinical North Macedonia see off Malta to keep hopes alive

Malta forward Jodi Jones hold the ball against North Macedonia. Photo: Domenic Aquilina

MALTA              0

N. MACEDONIA            2

Elmas 5

Manev 40

MALTA H. Bonello, J. Mbong (46 C. Attard), S. Borg, E. Pepe, Z. Muscat, R. Camenzuli, B. Kristensen (46 Y. Yankam), M. Guillaumier (89 B. Paiber), T. Teuma, K. Nwoko (72 P. Mbong), J. Jones (46 L. Montebello).

N. MACEDONIA D. Shiskovski, E. Alioski, G. Zajkov (77 N. Serafimov), V. Musliu, J. Manev, E. Bardhi, B. Dimoski (85 S. Ashkovski), E. Elmas, J. Atanasov (76 A. Elezi), I. Alimi, B. Miovski (90 M. Ristoski).

Referee Henrik Nalbandyan (Armenia).

Yellow cards Teuma, Borg, Camenzuli, Shiskovski.

North Macedonia scored two goals on either side of the first half to ease past Malta and remain firmly in the race for a qualifying spot at the 2024 European Championship finals.

This was a match that could have provided the best opportunity for Malta to pick up their first point in Group C. But the Macedonians quickly dispelled the home side’s plans as they took just six minutes to forge ahead through their star player Eljif Elmas and from then on there was no way back for the home side.

In fact, the former Yugoslav Republic were very solid in all areas of the pitch as they bossed proceedings and managed to all but wrap up the points on the stroke of half-time through a second goal scored by Manev.

In the second half, the Maltese tried to claw themselves back into the match but the visitors held firm to secure a vital victory in their hopes of qualification.

In fact, North Macedonia moved up to the seven-point mark, level on points with second-placed Italy and Ukraine, and although they have played a game more than the Italians they can still have their say in their final two matches against their direct opponents.

On the other hand, Malta remain bottom of the group and are still in search of their first points and their next assignment will only get tougher when they face Italy in Bari.

Malta coach Michele Marcolini effected three changes from the team that beat Gibraltar last Friday.

Zach Muscat was back in the three-man defence at the expense of Kurt Shaw while Teddy Teuma was preferred to Luke Montebello. Upfront, Kyrian Nwoko partnered Jodi Jones with Jurgen Degabriele forced to settle with a place on the bench.

North Macedonia made their intentions clear right from the outset and took just five minutes to surge ahead.

Alioski fed Bardhi who immediately set up Elmas and the Napoli attacking midfielder showed all his class when hitting a firm drive that gave no chance to goalkeeper Henry Bonello.

Malta tried to respond and on 19 minutes Ryan Camenzuli sent a dipping cross towards Nwoko but Gjoko Zajkov denied the Malta striker with a headed clearance.

As the minutes passed, the Maltese started to show more promise when pushing forward but their failure to provide a precise final ball was hurting their hopes of creating scoring chances.

On 26 minutes, Nwoko fed Jones but his low drive flashed wide.

Seven minutes from the break, Steve Borg was booked by referee Henrik Nalbandyan for a challenge on Alioski, meaning that he will be suspended for Malta’s next qualifier against Italy in Bari next month.

From the ensuing free-kick, Bardhi’s thumping drive was providentially deflected to a corner by Nwoko.

That was a temporary reprieve for Malta as from the corner, taken by Elmas, Manev headed the ball towards the far corner and past a diving Henry Bonello to double his team’s lead.

Just before the half-time whistle, Bonello had to be at his best to keep out Bardhi’s shot from a free-kick.

At the interval, Marcolini was clearly unhappy with his team’s performance and that was reflected in his decision to make three changes.

Yannick Yankam came on for Bjorn Kristensen, Cain Attard replaced Joseph Mbong and Montebello was drafted in at the expense of Jones.

The second half saw the North Macedonia side happy to administer their advantage as they were happy to move the ball around to try and create some spaces in the Maltese defence but with scant success.

To their credit, the Maltese players continued with their efforts to try and create scoring chances but the visitors continued to look very solid in defence.

North Macedonia were unlucky not to add a third goal on 65 minutes when Ezgjan Alioski was given space on the right channel to hit a thumping drive that saw Bonello deflect the ball onto the upright before the hosts cleared.

Bonello was again at his best ten minutes from time when he pushed away Miovski’s shot.

Malta created an opportunity seven minutes from time when Enrico Pepe’s shot was blocked in two attempts by Shishkovski.

A minute later, Attard’s cross was met by the sprinting Camenzuli who, however, headed over.

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