Michael Mifsud has delivered the perfect riposte to those critics who wanted him out of the national squad in light of his lengthy hiatus from club football.

The nimble forward's hesitancy to sign a new contract after his deal with English club Coventry City expired at the end of last season, has been arguably the greatest conundrum of Maltese football for the past eight months but all the speculation has clearly not shaken Mifsud's confidence.

Elevated to team captain in the absence of Gilbert Agius and Brian Said, Mifsud squandered an early chance when his 14th minute penalty was saved by Finland goalkeeper Peter Enckelman in Wednesday's friendly but redemption was not long in coming.

Barely three minutes from his penalty miss had passed when Mifsud was on the right spot to poke the ball home after a left-wing cross from Andrew Cohen had caused panic in the Finnish defence. Mifsud's goal propelled him to the top of Malta's all-time scorers' list with 24 goals, one more than Carmel Busuttil.

Mifsud, who celebrated his goal by pointing two fingers towards the sky before being mobbed by team-mates, is justifiably proud of his latest achievement.

"I'm very pleased to have set a new scoring mark for Malta," Mifsud told The Times yesterday. "My goal on Wednesday raised my spirits as I've been through some hard times lately.

"I want to thank my team-mates for helping me reach this milestone."

It says everything about Mifsud's resilience and his ability to stay focused that he found the net only three minutes after his penalty strike had been saved by Enckelman.

"When I missed the penalty, I felt as if the world had turned against me but I was adamant not to let that setback blemish my confidence and determination," Mifsud remarked.

Mifsud is also delighted that his contribution in Wednesday's game, which Malta lost 2-1, went some way towards silencing those who had put pressure on coach John Buttigieg to drop him from the squad.

"I have always approached the game in a professional way," Mifsud said.

"I wouldn't blame the coach were he to drop me for not being 100 per cent fit or because I'm not giving my all in training but this has not been the case.

"We did some tests recently and the results showed that I'm one of the fittest players in the national squad. Furthermore, I think that my performances in the last matches prove that I deserve to be in the team."

Playing for Malta has always been a source of pride for Mifsud who added: "I've said it many times that, for me, it's an honour to represent my country. When I hear the national anthem before a game, I feel as if another person comes out of me, such is my determination to do well for my country.

"I know that the coach has been under increasing pressure to ditch me but he knows what he's doing. Statistics don't lie and as the coach rightly pointed out before Wednesday's friendly, I contributed three of the four goals scored by the national team over the past 13 months.

"My goal against Finland means that I've now scored four out of five.

"I don't want to sound as if I'm blowing my trumpet but I'm happy that my scoring run has vindicated the coach's decision to keep me in the squad.

"Personally, I've never lost my self-belief. I also think that my team-mates have a lot of confidence in me. Their support, on and off the pitch, has helped me a lot."

Mifsud's breakthrough came during a lively 25-minute spell for Malta but Finland gradually seized control and struck twice in three second-half minutes to turn the tables on the hosts.

"We deserved to be 1-0 up at half-time but Finland put us under a lot of pressure in the second half," Mifsud reflected.

"They didn't give us time to settle down as they attacked from all angles. But, in football games, teams make mistakes and they get punished. This happens to us very often. Some players in our team are virtually newcomers to international football but this experience should stand them in good stead.

"I also feel that our team suffers from a mental block. Sometimes we look uncomfortable when we're leading because, in most matches, we concede first."

Coaches' work

Malta's warm-up against Finland heralded the start of the national team's build-up for the Euro 2012 qualifiers. The inclusion of young players in the squad indicates a willingness on Buttigieg's part to refresh things. Mifsud only had words of praise for the work of Buttigieg and Busuttil, his right-hand man.

"I believe that the coaches have been planning carefully for the present and the future of the national team," Mifsud said.

"They have drafted several upcoming players in the squad but they are also banking on the experienced members of the group. I think we have a good blend. The atmosphere is very good and personally I feel like I'm part of a big family. We're enjoying ourselves during training."

In the pre-match news conference, Buttigieg revealed that Mifsud had been on the verge of signing for a new club last week. According to reports from England, Mifsud had some training sessions with Portsmouth who, last Friday, went into administration due to financial problems.

Invited to elaborate on Buttigieg's comments, Mifsud confirmed that he had been close to agreeing a deal with an English Premier League club but stopped short of naming it.

"Yes, I was close to signing for a Premier League club," Mifsud replied. "The coach wanted me but it was not to be."

With just over two months remaining for the end of the 2009/2010 season, the general feeling is that Mifsud is unlikely to figure for a club until next summer but the 28-year-old is not ruling out the possibility of joining a team in the next few days or weeks.

"I think my prospects of playing this season are still alive," Mifsud said. "My priority remains to join an overseas club."

Would he consider signing a short-term deal with a Maltese team?

"I'd say the chances of that happening are remote but never say never," he replied.

Mifsud confessed that he feels a tinge of regret about his on-going delay to settle his club future.

"Deep down, I have a slight regret about my long absence from football at club level but at the same time, I've recharged my batteries after a somewhat long spell away from my home country. My desire to play football has tripled over the past few months," he said.

Although Mifsud understands that his standing as one of Malta's leading lights in football makes him a target of gossip and speculation, he feels that, at times, the reaction to his situation has been over-the-top.

"I've been let down by people who tried to undermine my credibility in recent months," Mifsud said. "There has been a lot of negative talk and in some sections of the media, critics have used my situation to stir controversy before international matches.

"I've also been dismayed to receive three anonymous letters from so-called supporters. These are not genuine fans because if they were, they wouldn't have written the stuff they did.

"On the positive side, I've received a lot of support from several people who continued to believe in me. I want to convey my gratitude to TeamSport for their unstinting backing.

"I always like to say that I prefer to do my talking on the pitch. That's what I've done in the past and that's exactly what I intend to keep doing."


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