The Malta waterpolo national team face their biggest test of 2019 when they take on Portugal and Romania in a qualifying tournament at Tal-Qroqq for a place in the 2020 European Championships in Budapest in January.

Malta open their qualifying campaign tomorrow afternoon when they face Portugal at 5.30pm before taking on Romania on Sunday morning (start: 10am).

Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Izzo named a strong squad for this double-header as he welcomed back in the fray all the players who ply their trade in foreign leagues, namely Steve Camilleri, Jordan Camilleri, Jeremy Abela and Matthew Zammit.

The top two teams from the group progress to the Budapest final and with Romania clearly the strongest side in the group, Izzo is targeting a win against Portugal to secure qualification

 “We had a very good build-up for the qualifying tournament,” Izzo told the Times of Malta.

“After the end of the National Championship, the locally-based national team players took part in the Euro Cup where we played against some strong opposition.

“Since then we trained everyday and last weekend we headed to Sicily for a five-day training camp where we faced local clubs Catania and Ortigia, who play in the Italian top-flight.

“At the moment, the atmosphere in the group is excellent and hopefully we will be at our best for our opening match against Portugal which could earn us qualification straight away.”

Asked on his impression on tomorrow’s opponents Portugal, Izzo said: “Portugal are more or less of our level. In the last few years they have come a long way and have secured some eye-catching wins against the likes of South Africa and Switzerland. That shows that they will be dangerous opponents, like Belarus were two years ago, and we cannot take them lightly.”

The Malta coach has emphasised the importance of seeing his team putting in a solid defensive performance if they are to be successful this weekend.

“Our priority will be to be very solid in defence,” Izzo said.

“If we manage to defend well then we will be able to play fast counter-attacking play where with the likes of Steve Camilleri, Jerome Gabaretta and Matthew Zammit in the team we will surely be able to score the goals needed to win the matches.

“Most of all, I want the players to be focused righ from the first swim-off. We cannot take it easy against Portugal or else we risk of put ourselves under pressure to turn the match around.

“So, hopefully we start very well and from then on we can administer our advantage till the end.”

Izzo has no doubt that this time around he has a far stronger side than he had in Barcelona 18 months ago.

“If you look at the squad of players I have, it’s almost the same players that where with us in the last European Championships in Barcelona,” Izzo said.

“This time, I decided to leave young Jake Muscat continue to train and play with his club Montenegrin club Jadran Carine and hopefully we will be able to bank on him for the European Championship finals.

“The backbone of our team is made up of several veteran players who have developed a lot in recent years and surely I have more strength-in-depth to bank on. Waterpolo in Malta changed as teams now train throughout the years with professional overseas coaches.

“There is no doubt that there is a bright future for the sport and qualification to Budapest will further rubberstamp our progress.”

MALTA SQUAD

J. Abela, A. Borg Cole, G. Pace, J. Camilleri, S. Camilleri, N. Zammit (all Neptunes), N. Bugelli, M. Spiteri Staines, J. Gabaretta (all Sliema), B. Plumpton, J. Tanti, Darren Zammit, Dino Zammit, A. Galea, M. Zammit, N. Grixti (all San ─áiljan), I. Riolo (Sirens), A. Cousin (Exiles),

PROGRAMME

FRIDAY

Romania vs Portugal            17.30

SATURDAY

Malta vs Portugal     17.30

SUNDAY

Malta vs Romania    10.00