Andrei Agius is confident that the national team can add more points to their UEFA Nations League tally as the MFA contingent left the islands for Prishtina ahead of tomorrow’s match against Kosovo (kick-off: 8.45pm).
Buoyed by their 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan at the National Stadium last month, the Maltese clan is hoping to build on that result and provide a more competitive challenge against teams who may be considered within our reach, in Group D3.
“I think this team can pick up points against any opponent in this group,” Agius told the Times of Malta.
“Starting from the upcoming tie in Prishtina, we know that Kosovo is a very strong squad. In my opinion they are the favourites to top the group as they are blessed with a bunch of top-quality players from which they can select for such competitions.
“Nonetheless, I believe that our team is capable of proving critics wrong and claim something from this game, but only if we stick to our game plan.”
Kosovo, whose request of joining UEFA as a member association was approved during the European governing body’s Executive Committee meeting held in Malta in 2015, are eager to leave their mark in this competition.
After making their international debut in official competitions during the 2018 FIFA World Cup preliminary round, where they ended bottom of their group with just a point, they are fancying their chances of topping their Nations League group.
Their goal is to win promotion to League C and keep themselves in the running for an audacious qualification to Euro 2020.
Since they are a new nation football-wise, the team ranked 95th in the FIFA list were allowed to call-up players who were already capped by other national teams including the likes of goalkeeper Samir Ujkani, who played for Albania and former Norway international Valon Berisha.
Such players have created a competitive roster that can certainly be considered to possess the quality of teams who are currently grouped in League C rather than League D.
Speaking about Malta’s chances against Kosovo, Agius is wary of the threat posed by their opponents but sounded confident that Malta have the necessary tools to hurt them if the opportunity presents itself.
“Kosovo is a very strong side, with lots of players that play in some of the best leagues across the Old Continent,” the Hibernians defender said.
“Our analysis showed that they attack in numbers and therefore, they leave themselves exposed on their flanks which means that we have to be lucid in order to exploit such spaces during the game.
“However, we will have plenty of time to study them before Thursday’s game and hopefully we will be well prepared for this test.”
After Kosovo, Malta will face Azerbaijan in Baku, in what are two difficult away trips.
Malta’s away record is pretty much negative, in particular in preliminaries for major tournaments.
In the previous 2018 World Cup and 2016 European Championships qualifiers, the national team managed to collect just one positive result which was converted into points – a 1-1 draw against Bulgaria, in November 2014.
Moreover, Malta’s last victory away from home in a qualifying campaign was way back in June 2013, when a Michael Mifsud goal earned the team a 1-0 win over Armenia in Yerevan.
“Playing away is always a much more difficult task for us,” Agius, who boasts overseas experience in Serbia and Italy, said.
“The most intriguing factor of playing abroad is how much a player can handle the environment to use his skill and talent to put up a performance that will help his team.
“Such experiences are vital for the growth of any player because you get to witness different cultures and surroundings.”
Since taking over the national team, coach Ray Farrugia has made sure to call up several youngsters into the senior side.
The current squad consists of a mix of veteran players, such as Agius, Roderick Briffa and Andrew Cohen, and upcoming talent mostly making the transition from the
U-21s to the senior side which include Hibs winger Joseph Mbong, who played in both the Nations League matches against the Faroe Islands and Azerbaijan last month, Juan Corbalan, of leaders Gżira and Birkirkara’s Jake Grech.
Agius has now established himself into one of the longest-serving players for Malta having collected 77 caps since making his debut in a friendly match against Japan (0-1) in 2006.
Undoubtedly, he is one of the national team members that can transmit a lot of experience to the younger members in the squad.
Lately, Agius has been proving himself also as a prolific scorer as he netted three of the last four goals registered by Malta, including the penalty which earned Farrugia’s clan a point against the Azeri side at Ta’ Qali, last month.
It’s important that young players coming through the ranks join our team because it is natural that every team has its own generational cycle- Andrei Agius
Still, Agius believes that it is important that more young players are brought into the senior set up to ensure a bright future for the national team.
“It’s important that young players coming through the ranks join our team because it is natural that every team has its own generational cycle,” the former Latina defender said.
“The integration of these players creates a competitive environment from which everyone can benefit both as a players and individuals.
“I think that we do have a lot of young players who are showing a lot of potential and it’s important that we invest heavily on them. Besides the young players we have in the squad I think that there are others who could do a job for the national team.
“One player that springs to my mind is Kyrian Nwoko, of Valletta. He has already been part of our national team and I think that if he is given more first-team football at his club I have no doubt that he has the ability to be part of our national team again.”
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