(6-4, 3-1, 3-4, 0-1)
The Malta waterpolo national team have done it again.
Karl Izzo’s boys booked their place in the European Championship finals for a third straight time when they battled past Portugal in a hard-fought encounter at the National Pool.
With two qualifying places up for grabs from the three-team pool, yesterday’s tie between Malta and Portugal turned out to be a decider for who will join Romania in the European Championship finals which will be held in Budapest, Hungary, in January.
After a nervy start, the Maltese held the edge over the Portuguese as they opened a solid buffer by the half-time interval when leading 9-5.
But Portugal fought back in the final two sessions as nerves started to creep into the Maltese players.
However, the experience of the likes of Aurelien Cousin, Steve Camilleri and Matthew Zammit coupled with the excellent interventions of Nicky Grixti helped Malta to seal the much-needed win that secured qualification.
Now Izzo’s boys can look forward to this morning final group match against Romania with little pressure on their shoulders. However, one hopes that the Maltese players will try their best to get a positive outcome against the strong Romanians which could give them a more favourable draw for the continental championships early next year.
The Maltese coped admirably with this psychological pressure especially when the Portuguese showed sharper offensive instincts in the early part of the game when Rui Ramos opened the score and Matthew Zammit missed Malta’s first man-up.
Malta seemingly overcame their initial moments of difficulty with the irrepressible Steven Camilleri who bagged four goals, the last of which with swagger as he rotated well above the water level and from distance he beat the Serbia-born goalkeeper Mykola Yanochko.
In the process, Karl Izzo’s men improved their man-up co-efficient, putting away three consecutive man-up situations.
Aurelien Cousin not only orchestrated the defence exceptionally but found time to swim up and score a brace.
A nervy start to the second session saw Malta failing to cash in on two consecutive man-ups before Ricardo Teixeira made it 6-5. Nicholas Grixti in goal, provided inspiration to his colleagues who responded with three consecutive goals through Matthew Zammit, Dino Zammit and a fifth by Camilleri.
Early in the third session, Portugal fought back to within two goals on 9-7 with Pedro Sousa reaching four goals but a beautiful back-hand by Jerome Gabarretta and a cheeky lob by Matthew Zammit restored Malta’s four-goal cushion.
Ricardo Sousa scored for 12-9 score as the Maltese lads limited the damage to lose this session 3-2.
The first signs of fatigue began to emerge in the last quarter with Ricardo Sousa closed the gap again with the Maltese unable to react but Grixti, once again a string of smart saves to keep Malta’s heads above water.
In the end, Malta did just enough to administer their advantage till the end to secure their place in the European Championship finals