The Malta national team showed two different facets in this month’s Euro 2024 qualifiers which saw them face Italy at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari and then host Ukraine at the National Stadium on Tuesday night.
While in both matches the national team returned home with no points in the bag, the performances of the team were completely different.
Against Italy, we saw a national team that looked overwhelmed by the occasion and looked terrorised instead of trying to play positive football as they feared to be left defensively exposed and end up suffering a comprehensive defeat, which was still the case as they were beaten 4-0.
Fast forward three days and the national team took to the pitch to face another Euro 2024 qualifying contender, Ukraine, completely transformed, producing their best performance in this year’s qualifying campaign.
After the match against Italy, the national team players were lambasted for lacking character and personality but against Ukraine the team was firing on all cylinders right from the outset.
The players showed a completely different attitude as they played fearless attacking football against more-quoted opponents, pressing high up the pitch.
All players on the pitch worked tirelessly and every time they had the ball in their feet they always moved the ball vertically, posing continous problems to the Ukrainian defence with their quick transition play spearheaded by the Mbong brothers Paul and Joseph as well as Kyrian Nwoko who worked tirelessly to create spaces in the opposing defence.
It was no surprise that coach Marcolini was delighted with the attitude of the players.
“I am grateful to my players for the attitude shown today,” the Italian coach told the media after the match.
“We were coming from a tough match against Italy where we were not happy with how we performed in the second half and we were determined to make up for it in the match against Ukraine,” Marcolini said.
“Today the mindset was completely different as we tried to play attacking football and our principal thinking was to push forward, not by kicking long balls towards our forwards but with vertical balls.
“My midfielders today made all the difference in how they used the ball in possession. They didn’t just think about preserving possession but always tried to make something happen with precise throughballs.
“No doubt, this was a great performance from all the team with all the players giving their 100 per cent.”
Despite the team’s vibrant showing, Marcolini admitted that the defeat left a sour taste, particularly given the numerous goalscoring chances created by the team.
“To be honest, I couldn’t believe my eyes at half-time when seeing the team head to the interval 2-1 behind,” Marcolini said.
“During the first half, we were clearly the better side and certainly didn’t deserve to head into the half-time interval trailing after suffering two unfortunate goals that came from an own goal and a penalty, which we could have avoided.
“But our response in the second half was another testimony of the great character and personality of the team as we took to the second half very aggressive, continuing to create more chances but our efforts were not rewarded.”
Asked whether the fierce criticism received after the Italy debacle had a major effect on the players’ response on Tuesday, Marcolini said: “I am someone who always accepts criticism and is always ready to take the blame when negative results happen. However, some of the comments made were a bit overboard as people didn’t realise against whom we were playing.
“The players provided their response to that criticism in the best possible way with a sound performance on the pitch against Ukraine. They were hurt but it was sad as they were accused that they didn’t try enough against Italy and lacked character.
“But when you play teams like Italy you can try and play positive football but it’s not easy and last weekend they simply didn’t let us play how we wanted. Today, it was different and we need to take heart from this performance and try and continue to improve as a team.”
In football, keeping high standards is crucial to be successful.
It is clear that Malta’s performance against Ukraine was the best display of the national team since Michele Marcolini took charge.
Now it’s important that the national team players, after proving their capability of playing to such high standards, try and maintain this level of performance on a consistent basis.
“I fully agree that we should use this performance as a starting point for the future,” Marcolini said.
“Since I took charge of the team I tried to pass on this message to the players that our possession play should be aimed not just at holding onto the ball but to try and open up our opponents. It took some time but finally today we started to reap these rewards.
“At the same time, everyone have to understand that it also depends against whom you are playing. Facing Gibraltar and Luxembourg is one thing, playing Italy and England is another.
“The criticism against Italy was very harsh but today the players provided the right response. This performance showed that we have become a very tight-knit group that in adversity one fights for each other and that is very important.”
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