As the attention of the football world shifts to the Nations Cup, Malta's brief foray into the Euro 2008 limelight failed to generate positive headlines after the national team suffered a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Austria at the UPC-Arena Stadium on Friday night.
Two goals inside the opening 11 minutes and another midway through the second half extinguished Malta's hopes of ending their 2007-08 international season on a positive note after Michael Mifsud had given Dusan Fitzel's team a lifeline by reducing the arrears to just one goal before half-time.
Coming just over two months after a 7-1 victory over fellow minnows Liechtenstein in a friendly at the National Stadium, Friday's defeat to the Euro 2008 co-hosts was a hard pill to swallow for Malta but Fitzel is hoping that the setback will help to re-focus the players' minds.
"It was a bad defeat," Fitzel told reporters after the match.
"I don't think it will affect our build-up for the World Cup 2010 qualifiers but hopefully it will serve as a wake-up call for the players.
"They know that they have to work harder to improve and be ready for the qualifiers when we resume training in August."
Malta have been drawn in Group One of the 2010 World Cup qualifying round along with Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary and Albania.
In Graz, Malta were punished for almost every mistake they committed, prompting Fitzel to lament the team's tactical weaknesses.
"I was mostly disappointed with the team's approach to the game," Fitzel remarked.
"We made a lot of tactical errors and although the players tried to make up, we still ended up losing heavily. It's my job to instruct my players on tactical positioning and I hope they will understand what I will be trying to explain to them."
Another spot of bother for Fitzel was his team's difficulties to defend set-pieces.
"We conceded three goals from set-pieces, one from a corner, the second from a penalty and the third from a free-kick," the coach observed.
"It looks like the players are unable to concentrate fully during set-play situations but we also have to take into consideration the physical stature of our opponents. Most of the Austrians were taller than our players and for us, it was always going to be a big challenge to defend against them."
Several Maltese players looked out of sorts on Friday but Fitzel was particularly critical of Udo Nwoko whose first-team opportunities at Portuguese club Leixoes this season have been somewhat restricted.
"I'm very disappointed with Nwoko's performance," Fitzel said of the Nigerian-born winger who was replaced by young Ħamrun Spartans midfielder Ryan Fenech at half-time.
"Nwoko just didn't follow my instructions and if he repeats this kind of performance, he will be risking his place in the squad."
In his pre-match comments, Fitzel remarked that Marsaxlokk's Kevin Sammut had probably deserved to be in the squad on the back of his showings in the domestic season but pointed at his low-key display in the Maltese Selection's 2-1 defeat to Belgium's U-23 Olympic team as the reason for his omission from the 18-strong list for Friday's friendly.
Asked to comment on his decision to leave Sammut out in the context of Malta's 5-1 loss to Austria, Fitzel stuck to his guns. His view is that Sammut wouldn't have given Malta an extra edge.
The Malta coach was more positive when giving his verdict on the contribution of Jonathan Caruana, who made his senior debut against Austria, and Shaun Bajada.
"Bajada and Caruana both played well, they proved themselves," Fitzel said. "They are willing to learn."
The format of the Maltese Premier League was among the subjects Fitzel touched on during Friday night's news conference. In the pre-match briefing, the Malta coach suggested that the level of domestic football improved last season but there was still ample space for more progress, especially in terms of increasing the tempo and intensity of the local game.
After the match in Graz, Fitzel declared himself against the two-tier format of the Premier League, whereby the 10 teams in the top flight are split into two groups after the first two rounds, and called for a return to a championship with three rounds.
Austria may have put the seal on their preparations for Euro 2008 with a rare win to boost their confidence but they still face an uphill struggle to survive a group containing Germany, Croatia and Poland.
Invited to offer his views on Austria's chances, Fitzel said: "They are in a difficult group. It's hard to judge Austria's chances on their performance today because you can't compare Malta with the likes of Croatia or Germany. They are much stronger than us and Austria certainly have a difficult task to try and reach the quarter-finals."
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us