The few hundreds of home fans, most of them young members of local football nurseries, who ventured to the National Stadium for the friendly between Malta and Liechtenstein, received a treat they can never have imagined beforehand.
This friendly was billed as a clash between two European minnows but much had been made in the lead-up about Liechtenstein's improvement and their legion of foreign-based players. However, Malta seized the opportunity to underline their own progress as they outclassed their opponents to the tune of 7-1 in a surprisingly one-sided match.
Michael Mifsud was the catalyst behind Malta's record win yesterday as the nippy striker became the first player in Maltese football history to score five goals for the national team in an international match.
Although Mifsud deservedly stole the limelight, credit must be given to the entire team for a vintage performance that had flowing football as its hallmark. It was Malta's first win against Liechtenstein as the only time the two nations met before, way back in 1981, the result had been a 1-1 draw.
While one should not lose sight of the fact that yesterday's match was a friendly and the opponents were not of the highest order, it would equally be unfair if one were to detract from the merits of our national team. Just as Malta were pilloried in the past whenever our team lost against fellow minnows, they are certainly deserving of all the praise that is likely to flow in their direction this morning.
Mifsud's scoring heroics apart, Malta sallied forward with real brio yesterday but were also disciplined and focused when it came to keeping their tactical shape in the isolated period when Liechtenstein put some pressure on the home defence.
Malta's performance shed a positive led on the team's preparations for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, starting in September, as well as on the on-going positive impact coach Dusan Fitzel is having on the national team.
It was one of those games where everything went right for Malta as Mifsud fired the team into a three-goal lead inside the opening 20 minutes by which time the out-of-sorts Liechtenstein had been reduced to 10 men after Fabio D'Elia was sent for an early shower for denying Etienne Barbara a clear scoring opportunity.
Fitzel's starting XI contained several of the established players who figured regularly during the Euro 2008 qualifiers, the likes of captain Gilbert Agius, yesterday making his 107th appearance in a Malta shirt, Jamie Pace, Michael Mifsud, Luke Dimech, Roderick Briffa and Kevin Sammut.
The remaining berths on the starting grid were awarded to players who have been knocking hard on the national team's doors for the past few months, the likes of Valletta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg and defensive team-mate Josef Mifsud, Udo Nwoko, the Leixoes winger, and Birkirkara's in-form midfielder Shaun Bajada. Barbara may be out of favour with his club Sliema Wanderers but that didn't deter Fitzel from naming the bustling forward in his initial formation.
Liechtenstein's Swiss coach Hans-Peter Zaugg included a number of foreign-based players in his team such as Boavista goalkeeper Peter Jehle, Martin Stocklasa, of Dynamo Dresden, FC Thun's Frans Burgmeier and Siena's Mario Frick.
The game was less than two minutes old when home optimism rose as a result of the Maltese team being awarded a penalty after Martin Wille was adjudged to have tripped Barbara inside the penalty area. Michael Mifsud drilled a powerful strike past Jehle from the spot to give Malta the lead.
Liechtenstein should have levelled matters after five minutes when Frick, the team captain, pounced on a maladroit pass from Briffa in a central position and quickly released the advancing David Hasler. The FC Basel forward was clean through but much to Malta's relief, he struck his shot wide of the near post.
Malta's early attacking movement was fluid and Nwoko nearly doubled the home team's lead when he darted into the box but his tame chip was saved by Jehle.
In no time, Malta threatened again as Sammut and Barbara traded quick passes before the latter set up Mifsud who stormed into the box after skipping past the challenge of Wille. The Coventry striker looked certain to score but his firm drive from a somewhat tight angle was parried by the Liechtenstein goalkeeper.
Emboldened by their brisk start, Malta persisted with their forward endeavours. A corner by Sammut was met by Pace but his looping header was touched away by Jehle.
At the other end, Burgmeier's cross from a corner flew past a sea of red-shirted players and towards the far post where Fabio D'Elia blasted wide and high. Malta's riposte was quick and deadly as on 17 minutes, Mifsud poked goal no.2 after receiving an excellent square pass from Barbara who had again punished some sloppy defending by the visiting side.
Malta's delight increased two minutes after Mifsud's second goal as Liechtenstein were reduced to ten men after D'Elia received a straight red card for shackling the goalbound Barbara who had used his body strength and speed to outrun his immediate marker as he chased a long clearance by Pace. Scottish referee William Colum pointed to the spot and Mifsud despatched a low shot past Jehle to complete his hat-trick inside the opening 20 minutes. What a start!
There was no let-up from Malta as Barbara and the perky Mifsud had attempts saved by Jehle. Ten minutes from half-time, Malta heaped further misery on their hapless opponents as Pace directed a backheader past Jehle from a Sammut corner.
At the start of the second half, Fitzel effected a triple substitution as Andrew Cohen, Ivan Woods and Ryan Fenech came on for Barbara, Sammut and Agius respectively.
Five minutes after the restart, Liechtenstein finally had something to smile about as they earned a penalty after Josef Mifsud was ruled to have fouled Michele Polverino in the box. Frick stepped up for the penalty kick but his angled effort was kept out by the diving Hogg before the Maltese rearguard cleared the ball away for a corner.
Polverino's cross from the corner sailed towards Burgmeier who steered the ball past Hogg to pull one back for Liechtenstein.
Malta might have restored their four-goal advantage but for a fine save by Jehle on a Woods's piledriver. Jehle was beaten again close to the hour mark, Mifsud making it a poker of goals with strong drive from inside the box after the diminutive striker had been sent clear by Woods.
Nine minutes later, Mifsud further cemented his place in Maltese football history when he hit his fifth goal. Cohen initiated the move with a run down the right before crossing to the far post when Nwoko evaded an opponent and laid the ball to Mifsud who prodded past Jehle.
With 18 minutes left, Brian Said, a late replacement for Aaron Xuereb in Malta's 18-man squad, replaced Mifsud and earlier, Kenneth Scicluna had come on for Briffa. As the minutes ticked away, Liechtenstein forced a series of corners but their brief spell of pressure failed to unsettle the well-drilled Maltese rearguard.
Four minutes from time, Malta made it 7-1, Said getting in on the act with a looping header from the edge of the penalty area following a set-piece cross from fellow substitute Mallia.
In the dying stages, Hogg blocked a low shot by Christoph Biedermann.
A delighted Dusan Fitzel said the the turning point of the match was the sending off of Liechtenstein defender Fabio D'Elia and Michael Mifsud scoring the third goal from the ensuing penalty kick.
"The red card to the Liechtenstein player had a big effect on the course of the game," the Malta coach said.
"It was good for our team that we made it 3-0 from the penalty as that gave the players a lot of confidence.
"I was mostly pleased that Malta continued to look for more goals but on the otherhand I am slightly disappointed because we still committed some mistakes during the game.
"However, overall this was a very good match for us."
Malta: A. Hogg, S. Bajada, E. Barbara ('46 A. Cohen), L. Dimech, G. Agius ('46 R. Fenech), R. Briffa ('66 K. Scicluna), M. Mifsud, K. Sammut ('46 I. Woods), J. Mifsud ('72 B. Said), J. Pace, U. Nwoko ('79 G. Mallia).
Liechtenstein: P. Jehle, M. Stocklasa, R. Buechel, M. Frick, F. Burgmeier, M. Wille, F. D'Elia, R. Rohrer ('28 A. Gerster), F.J. Vogt ('64 M. Rechsteiner), D. Hasler ('71 C. Biedermann), M. Polverino.
Referee: William Colum (Scotland).
Scorers: M. Mifsud 2, 20 pens, 17, 60, 69; Pace 35; Burgmeier 51; Said 86.
Missed penalty: Frick 50.
Yellow card: Burgmeier.
Red card: D'Elia 19.
Maltese players' ratings: Hogg-7.5, Bajada-6, Barbara-7, Dimech-6.5, Agius-6.5, Briffa-6.5, M. Mifsud-9, Sammut-7, J. Mifsud-6.5, Pace-6.5, Nwoko-6.5.
Subs: Cohen-6, Woods-6.5, Fenech-6, Scicluna-6, Mallia-6, Said-6.
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