The 3-0 defeat suffered by Malta U-21 against Kazakhstan on Tuesday had set the alarm bells ringing. How could Malta lose to a team with so little international experience?
Sigfried Held and his players looked well on course to dispel the scepticism generated by the U-21s' demise after deservedly surging into a seemingly strong two-goal lead by the 61st minute... but what happened next?
Our players seemed to have forgotten that a football game lasts 90 minutes.
As complacency set in Malta's ranks, the pacey Kazakhi players, their speed and alertness exposing those old weaknesses hampering our football, drove forward with more conviction.
Their late flourish procured two goals which gave them a sharing of the spoils and put a blemish on an otherwise positive performance by Malta. Indeed, had Malta succeeded in protecting their lead, their spirits would have received a much-needed lift ahead of the March 29 EURO 2004 qualifier away to France.
Moreover, a victory would have been a fitting way to honour the achievement of David Carabott, the Malta skipper, who yesterday equalled Carmel Busuttil's record of 114 appearances.
Driving to Ta' Qali, I could not help but notice the lack of activity in and around our deserted National Stadium on an evening of international matches. That is not to say that I expected Maltese fans to turn up in their thousands. Aside from the fact that the local sporting public has long turned its back on our national team, Kazakhstan are anything but a household name in Euro football.
A quick scan of the visitors' line-up revealed several mistakes as, according to their shirt numbers, three players who were listed as substitutes were in fact on the field of play from the start.
Held's selection vindicated predictions about his plans to give fringe players a rare starting berth.
Saviour Darmanin started in goal, Ian Ciantar and Airdrie United defender Simon Vella filled the two centre-half roles and Carlo Mamo manned the left flank.
Birkirkara's Luke Dimech, normally employed at the heart of defence by Held, was handed a holding role in midfield, behind Joe Brincat and George Mallia. Up front, the headline-grabbing Daniel Bogdanovic replaced Michael Mifsud as Chucks Nwoko's striking partner.
Malta were off to a flying start. The clock marked 15 minutes when Carabott supplied a crisp pass to Bogdanovic who shrugged off Vitaliy Artenov's challenge before firing home from routine distance.
The hosts continued to create the better chances, Nwoko just failing to connect to a teasing Mamo cross from the left flank.
The lively Bogdanovic then fashioned a rising shot which ended just wide.
Although Malta's tactical organisation gave them an edge, the Kazakhstan forwards, namely Evgeniy Tarasov and Oleg Litvinenko, caused some consternation in the Maltese defence.
In one instance, the impish Tarasov embarked on a weaving run but his central drive was parried by Darmanin.
Malta's failure to maintain their early momentum meant that Kazakhstan enjoyed more possession. Darmanin distinguished himself with a top-drawer save on Oleg Musin.
One minute from half-time, a cohesive move, involving Mamo, Nwoko and Bogdanovic, saw the latter releasing Brincat with an astute back heel but the Sliema midfielder's drive was blocked.
Bogdanovic was a torn in the side of the Kazakhstan defence, coming close to doubling our lead nine minutes after the restart. He was quick to pounce on a mistake by Igor Avdeyev inside the area but after steering clear of the goalkeeper, the gangly striker lost balance and miscued his shot.
Held effected his first substitution 12 minutes after the break, Noel Turner coming on for Brincat.
When Carabott's stride was illegally halted by Avdeyev, Malta were awarded a free-kick just outside of the penalty area. Mamo's perfect cross was headed home by Nwoko for his first goal after 41 appearances for the national team.
This came just past the hour mark. Moments later, Bogdanovic could have added to the tally but his clinical finishing for once deserted him when he shot wide after receiving a crisp pass from Mallia who had broken up a Kazakhstan attack.
Kazakhstan also missed a golden opportunity to reduce the leeway when Tarasov used his speed to good effect, outpacing two defenders but his effort hit the base of the post with Darmanin beaten.
Twenty minutes from time, Malta produced two ideal opportunities to increase their lead. Bogdanovic's close-range attempt from a Mamo flag-kick was deviated away for a corner. From the ensuing flag-kick, Bogdanovic's cross-shot was palmed away by Yuri Novikov.
As action continued to ebb to and fro, Kazakhstan managed to pull a goal back in their next foray, Maxim Schevchenko's flick deceiving Darmanin after he received from Garkusha.
The incoming Adrian Mifsud, a substitute for Nwoko, almost signalled his arrival with a goal but his angled drive from the right was deflected onto the bar by a Kazakhstan defender.
However, as the minutes trickled by, Malta grew increasingly lethargic, especially in defence. Their decline was fully capitalised by Kazakhstan who levelled matters seven minutes from time.
Malta's defence was caught at sixes and sevens when Avdeyev crossed the ball from the right and Evgeniy Tarasov's central header beat Darmanin to complete the visitors' fightback.
Malta: S. Darmanin, I. Ciantar, S. Vella, D. Carabott, B. Said, L. Dimech, D. Bogdanovic, C. Mamo (W. Camenzuli 76), G. Mallia (J. Holland 88), J. Brincat (N. Turner 57), C. Nwoko (A. Mifsud 64).
Kazakhstan: Y. Novikov, I. Avdeyev, O. Musin, V. Artenov, S. Kozulin (D. Kichshenko 64), E. Lovchev, M. Schevchenko, R. Baltiyev, A. Karpovitch (N. Zhumaskaliyev 46), O. Litvinenko (V. Garkusha 46), E. Tarasov.
Referee: Rene Rogalla (Switzerland).
Scorers: Bogdanovic 16th; Nwoko 61st; Schevchenko 71st; Tarasov 83rd.
Yellow Cards: Carabott; Avdeyev; Kichshenko.
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