Dismissed as no-hopers from the moment they jetted into Yerevan, Malta left eastern Europe brimming with pride last night.
Michael Mifsud’s early goal earned Malta a rare victory – their first competitive win away from home since the 1-0 defeat of Estonia on May 12, 1993 – as Pietro Ghedin’s men defied the odds after overcoming Armenia.
Nobody saw this win coming, moreso the hosts who regarded three points a mere formality yesterday. But football, as Ghedin had rightly pointed out on the eve of the match, can be a complicated business.
And the game surely became complicated for Armenia from the moment Mifsud, determined to remind everyone of his qualities after a below-par season with Valletta, finished off a quick breakaway to give Malta a shock lead.
Armenia, who until this upset still harboured hopes of reigniting their bid for a top-two finish, hit back strongly, pegging Malta in their own half but the underdogs were not to be denied.
It was all-hands-to-the-pump for Ghedin’s troops as they warded off a wave of Armenian attacks with goalkeeper Justin Haber producing a heroic display.
He was imperious in goal, denying Armenia time and again as shots and crosses rained in on his goal with the hosts, at times, attacking at a frenetic pace.
Haber was not alone though as his team-mates ran and harried, throwing their bodies in the way of Armenia’s incessant efforts with the back four of Alex Muscat, Ryan Camilleri, Luke Dimech and Jonathan Caruana looking impregnable.
The Maltese players and technical staff were ecstatic at the final whistle.
The scenes were indescribable as the players embraced each other before embarking on a merry-go-round, much to the chagrin of the disgruntled home fans.
For the long-suffering followers and few media personnel who have continued to follow the Maltese national team despite the dearth of positive results, this was a moment to savour. Indeed, Malta had ended a 20-year away win drought besides notching their first competitive victory since the 2-1 success over Hungary at the National Stadium in 2007.
The only blemish on an otherwise extraordinary evening for Maltese football was the injury suffered by midfielder Gareth Sciberras early in the second half and the yellow cards incurred by Muscat and Dimech which rule them out of the next qualifier, at home to Bulgaria.
Ghedin’s selection offered no surprises as he kept faith with the players who started the 2-0 home defeat to Italy in March.
Mifsud was our lone striker in a traditional 4-2-3-1 approach.
Armenia coach Vardan Minas-yan made three changes from the 3-0 defeat to Czech Republic with Davit Manoyan, of home club FC Pyunik, Karlen Mkrtchyan, of Ukrainian side Metallurg, and Araz Ozbiliz, who plays in Russia for FC Kuban, roped into the first team.
The star of this Armenian team is Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
He is the darling of the home fans who cheered loudly when the stadium announcer read out his name before kick-off.
Mkhitaryan was given freedom to roam behind the front duo of Marcos Pizzelli and Edgar Manucharyan as Armenia lined up in a 4-1-3-2 formation.
Armenia did the early running but it was the visitors who stunned the home crowd by taking an eighth-minute lead.
Malta counter-attacked with speed as Andre Schembri guided the ball to Sciberras who in turn floated a through-pass to Mifsud. The captain set off on one of his trademark runs behind the opposing defence.
Roman Berezovsky parried Mifsud’s initial shot but the striker did not miss with his second attempt, poking the ball high into the net from an angled position for his 37th goal for the country.
A goal up so early in the match was the perfect tonic for Malta as they chased their first points in Group B.
Armenia, however, soon regained the initiative. They were denied by Haber on 16 minutes as he fisted away a close-range header from Mkrtchyan from a corner.
Malta, wearing white outfits, were quick to break forward as Schembri again played Mifsud through but this time he was dispossessed after taking a touch too many.
Another flowing Malta move opened up Armenia’s shaky back four as Schembri, excelling in the art of flitting into dangerous positions between the lines, released Herrera on the left. The Birkirkara speedster burst into the box before aiming a cross towards the far post where Mifsud and Failla were unmarked but the latter headed over.
Armenia enjoyed a welter of possession but Malta posed danger every time they surged forward on the counter.
At the back, Ghedin’s men were oozing confidence, Muscat hurling his body in the way of Manu-charyan’s screamer before Haber produced a superb one-handed save to push Pizzelli’s looping drive over the bar.
Home pressure increased as Armenia pressed for an equaliser but Malta held firm.
Danger loomed for Haber when, with six minutes of the first half remaining, Mkhitaryan darted through after a free-kick was deflected into his path but his diagonal effort was cleared.
Haber did well to push away Manucharyan’s corner but Armenia persisted with their attack.
Retrieving possession, Manucharyan dashed into the box before hitting a perfect cross but Mkrtchyan headed over from an inviting position.
There was another scare for Malta when, on the stroke of half-time, Pizzelli picked out the steaming Mkhitaryan with a great pass but the latter miscued his header.
As the second half got underway, Armenia resumed their siege on our goal.
Kamo Hovhannisyan advanced on the right but his menacing cross was pawed away by the alert Haber who then stopped Ozbiliz’s grounder.
Ghedin was forced into his first substitution after Sciberras dis-located his elbow following a bad fall. Paul Fenech replaced his Birkirkara team-mate.
Armenia threatened again when Ozbiliz’s free-kick drifted into a crowded Malta box and towards goal but Haber showed excellent reflexes by keeping the ball out.
Artur Sarkisov, who scored Armenia’s winner when they beat Malta 1-0 in September, came on for Davit Manoyan. He almost emulated his scoring act as seconds later he ran on to Pizzelli’s through-ball but his strike hit the base of the near post.
Malta were hanging in. Hovhannisyan accelerated into the box but his effort was blocked by Haber who frustrated Armenia again following another fine save from Ozbiliz’s drive.
Malta’s failure to use possession efficiently hampered their hopes of stemming the Armenia tide. Haber made another providential intervention when fisting away Ozbiliz’s flag-kick.
Mifsud won a rare corner but Schembri mishit his attempt from Failla’s delivery.
Armenia began to betray signs of tiredness but Herrera’s attempt to dribble his way through after a quick break was foiled by Armenia.
Mkhitaryan was wide with a free-kick and, four minutes from time, Voskanyan hit badly after Ozbiliz’s corner was deflected into his path.
In stoppage time, Caruana made a timely block to deflect Mkhitaryan’s shot over the bar.
Armenia: R. Berezovsky, V. Aleksanyan, T. Voskanyan, R. Arzumanyan, K. Hovhannisyan, D. Manoyan (76 A. Sarkisov), K. Mkrtchyan, A. Ozbiliz, H. Mkhitaryan, M. Pizzelli, E. Manu-Charyan (46 Y. Movsisyan).
Malta: J. Haber, J, Caruana, G. Sciberras (57 P. Fenech), R. Camilleri, L. Dimech, C. Failla, R. Briffa (85 R. Muscat), M. Mifsud (90+ T. Vella), E. Herrera, A. Schembri, A. Muscat.
Referee: Arnold Hunter (N. Ireland).
Yellow Cards: Briffa; Muscat; Caruana; Dimech.
Haber-9, Caruana-8, Sciberras-7, Camilleri-7.5, Dimech-7.5, Failla-7, Briffa-7, Mifsud-7, Herrera-7, Schembri-7.5, Muscat-7.
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