Alex Sorloth ended Malta’s slim hopes of avoiding bottom spot in Group F as the Norwegian forward netted the all-important goal that earned the Scandinavians a 2-1 win at the National Stadium.
After the midweek debacle in Spain, which saw the national team suffer a humiliating 7-0 defeat to Spain, the Maltese players were looking to restore some pride and try and at least grind out a point that would lift them above the Faroe Islands and avoid last place in the group.
When Joshua King put the Norwegians ahead after only seven minutes it looked that another tough night was in store for the Malta team.
However, the home hopes were lifted by a moment of brilliance from veteran striker Michael Mifsud who single-handedly created the chance for Paul Fenech to level the match at the break.
After the break, the Maltese did show signs of improvement but their struggles to contend with the Norwegians’ vertical balls came back to haunt them when Sorloth slotted home the winner to hand Malta their ninth successive defeat in the group.
It was a frustrating end to another qualifying campaign that again showed Malta’s frailties on the international scene.
The home win over the Faroe Islands in our opening Group F match turned out to be one of few memorable nights in the qualifying campaign as the team struggled to compete with far stronger countries such as Spain, Sweden, Romania and the same Norway.
However, the biggest disappointment was surely the defeat in Torshavn against the Faroe Islands which again laid to bear our limitations.
The introduction of several youngsters in the national team was a step in the right direction taken by coach Ray Farrugia but surely more has to be done to lift the fortunes of our national team.
No doubt, after this qualifying campaign the MFA must go back to drawing board and implement a long-term strategy aimed at boosting our grass roots sector if we are to ensure a more competitive national team.
As promised Ray Farrugia made four changes to the team that suffered a humiliating 7-0 defeat to Spain last Friday. Steve Borg was back from suspension and replaced Jonathan Caruana in a three-man defence formed also by Andrei Agius and Zach Muscat. Joseph Zerafa replaced the injured Juan Corbalan while Paul Fenech was preferred to Jurgen Pisani.
Michael Mifsud skippered the side as the veteran forward started just behind Kyrian Nwoko with Brandon Paiber dropping to the bench.
Norway coach Lars Lagerback, as expected fielded several fringe players in his starting formation as his started his preparations for the Euro 2020 play-offs next year. In fact, the likes of Even Hovlan, Tarik Elyounoussi and Omar Elabdelloui all started on the bench while their star players Erling Braut Haland missed out due to injury while Martin Odegaard was not selected for the match.
In the opening minutes, the Maltese were defending too deeply with the result that our backline was pegged into our own half giving ample room for the Norwegians to spray the ball across the half easily.
That Norwegians took little time to make the most of this situation as after seven minutes Sander Berge’s throughball towards Matts Daehli completely caught the Malta defence by surprise and he quickly sent a low cross for Joshua King to bundle the ball home.
The goal rattled the home side who tried to regroup but their hopes of creating any danger to the Norwegian defence looked unlikely with Mifsud and Nwoko too isolated upfront.
King almost struck again on 28 minutes when the Bournemouth striker embarked on a surging run that took him past Steve Borg but his angled drive flashed just past the upright.
Malta finally threatened on the half hour mark when Kyrian Nwoko showed great footwork to turn past Tore Reginiussen but the Valletta striker’s shot hit the sidenetting.
The hosts did finally had cause to celebrate five minutes from the break thanks to the vision and distribution of Malta’s most decorated international player Mifsud.
In fact, the 38-year-old showed all his experience to control Bonello’s delivery and after he sent a fine dipping pass towards the sprinting Paul Fenech who kept his cool to lash the ball in between the legs of Nyland and into the net.
On the restart, Lagerback withdrew Daehli and roped in Elabdellaoui as he looked to inject more pace from the flanks.
Norway went on the front foot on the restart and Bonello had to be on alert to push away Markus Henriksen’s shot before King headed just wide.
After that early flurry of chances, it looked as though Malta were starting to settle down as they holding the ball much better.
But that bright spell soon fizzled out when Norway regained their lead on 62 minutes. Their goal was identical to their opener as Berge was given time and space to square the ball towards the unmarked Alexander Sorloth to poke home.
Things could have got worse for the home side on 65 minutes when Zach Muscat upended Sorloth inside the are with the referee pointed to the spot. But from the resultant penalty, Bonello dive to his right to push away King’s shot.
Seventeen minutes from time, Farrugia lost defender Steve Borg who limped out injured and was replaced by Ferdinando Apap.
On 81 minutes, Malta did come close when Andrei Agius rose high to meet Paul Fenech’s delivery but he headed the ball into the sidenetting.
Malta did try to launch a final assault on the Norwegian goal but they rarely tested Orjan Nyand, the Norway goalkeeper, as the visitors held on for the win.