Off the back of another failed venture to leave the doldrums of League D in the UEFA Nations League behind, Malta’s bid to qualify for a maiden major tournament has started according to the script, with Michele Marcolini’s men quickly assuming position at the bottom of the section.
Now ranked 172nd in the world, Malta went down 2-1 to North Macedonia on the opening matchday before taking on the seemingly impossible task of besting reigning champions Italy, who scored two first-half goals at the National Stadium through Mateo Retegui and Matteo Pessina to run out comfortable 2-0 winners.
With Ukraine also lying in wait for Marcolini’s charges on Monday, few will back the Falcons to upset the Group C apple cart and earn their tickets to a first-ever Euros finals, but Malta did at least end a three-game losing streak in last week’s friendly with Luxembourg, who succumbed to a Kyrian Nwoko header in the second half.
Overcoming a team sitting 81 places higher than them in the FIFA world rankings should lead to a renewed sense of optimism within the Malta camp, but the hosts have just one clean sheet to show from their last seven home games, and even that came against perennial whipping boys San Marino.
Furthermore, Malta have suffered 11 successive defeats in Euro qualifying since beating the Faroe Islands 2-1 in March 2019 – scoring a paltry two goals in that sequence – and keeping the scoreline respectable should be priority number one on Friday
As Malta quickly learned, beating the current European champions is not for everyone, but England avenged their painful penalty heartbreak to the Azzurri on a record-breaking night for Harry Kane, who officially became the greatest goalscorer his country had ever seen on March 23.
Three days after the Three Lions saw out a 2-1 triumph over Italy, Gareth Southgate’s men returned to their Wembley headquarters for the first time since before the World Cup, where a scintillating display from Bukayo Saka did the damage against Ukraine; the Arsenal man set up Kane’s 55th goal for the national team before curling home a delightful second not long after.
Sitting pretty at the top of Group C and three points better off than Italy and North Macedonia – who they tackle on matchday four – the Three Lions have more than one point to prove in the wake of another World Cup quarter-final elimination and humbling Nations League relegation, but the journey to redemption has started brightly.
The Three Lions travel to Malta having claimed 19 wins from their last 20 European Championship qualifying games – the aberration being a 2-1 loss away to the Czech Republic in October 2019 – and not since a goalless draw with Montenegro in 2010 have England failed to score at this stage.
It therefore should not come as a shock to learn that England have won all five of their previous meetings with Malta by an aggregate scoreline of 14-1, and the hosts’ only goal against the Three Lions came via a penalty which deflected off the head of Richard Wrightand into the back of the net in a 2000 friendly.