Malta produced another spirited and disciplined performance tonight against Croatia, the 2018 World Cup finalists who found it hard to break the solid Maltese defence but eventually prevailed after scoring three times in the second half. It was the third match for Malta in the space of seven days in what has been a generally fruitful period for the team led by coach Devis Mangia with three improved displays against tough opposition.
There were only two changes in Mangia’s line-up in comparison with the 2-2 draw against Slovakia last Saturday as midfielders Steve Pisani and Bjorn Kristensen were drafted in the team instead of Paul Mbong and Luke Gambin.
Croatia struggled in the first half, mainly thanks to the perfect gameplan adopted by Mangia. As early as the second minute, Nikola Vlašić was able to get a shot inside the penalty area, but the winger’s effort ended up into the side-netting. On 14 minutes, a looping header by Mario Pašalić bounced off the roof of the crossbar.
Malta were denied what looked like a clear penalty six minutes later as Croatia defender Duje Ćaleta-Car touched the ball with his hand in the box to block a Steve Pisani shot. However, the referee waved play on, much to the disappointment of the Maltese team. Just after the half hour mark, Vlašić raced dangerously into the box but his pass was not met by any Croatian player.
Vlašić, unmarked, had a shot on target at the start of the second half, which was saved by Bonello. The Malta custodian made another fine save to block a Mislav Oršić chip, after the Croatian striker was sent through.
Just after the hour, Croatia, boosted by the arrival of Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić who came on as substitutes, broke the deadlock. Another substitute, Borna Barišić, delivered the ball into the box from the left and Perišić hit home from close range to open the scoring. Barely a minute later, Vlašić’s volley just missed target.
In the 76th minute, the referee awarded a penalty to Croatia after a handball incident in the penalty box. Modrić sent Bonello the wrong way to double the lead for the hosts. On the stroke of full-time, the Croats added a third thanks to a tap-in from Josip Brekalo, finishing off a precise pass from Perišić.
Elsewhere, Slovakia beat Russia by the odd goal in three while Cyprus recorded their first win in this qualification group, a 1-0 victory over Slovenia.
Dominik Livaković, Josip Juranović, Duje Ćaleta-Car, Domagoj Vida, Dario Melnjak (Borna Barišić 57), Milan Badelj (Luka Modrić 54), Mateo Kovačić, Nikola Vlašić, Mario Pašalić (Josip Brekalo 54), Mislav Oršić (Kristijan Lovrić 78), Ante Budimir (Ivan Perišić 54).
Henry Bonello, Kurt Shaw, Steve Borg (Zach Muscat 67), Enrico Pepe, Ryan Camenzuli, Joseph Mbong (Juan Corbalan 67), Matthew Guillaumier, Steve Pisani (Jake Grech 62), Bjorn Kristensen (Luke Gambin 81), Teddy Teuma, Alex Satariano (Kyrian Nwoko 46).
Vida, Vlašić (C).
Lionel Tschudi (Switzerland).
Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina