'First 30 minutes are crucial' - Haber
Sciberras, Briffa handed starting berths
Justin Haber, the Malta U-21 international goalkeeper, believes that the key to a positive performance against Israel lies in the first 30 minutes.
"We have a very young squad, so our performance in the opening half-hour is bound to have a bearing on the end-result. My view is that a clean sheet in the first 30 minutes would give us the platform to perform well against Israel," the Birkirkara goalkeeper, one of the few 'veterans' in Mark Miller's squad, told The Times ahead of this evening's qualifier against Israel at Ta' Qali (kick-off 6 p.m.).
The Malta U-21s have earned the admiration of many a local fan thanks to a sequence of positive results in the last two qualifying campaigns when Ray 'Zazu' Farrugia was in charge.
New coach Miller has had to blood in new players when he assumed control of the team at the start of a new season as most of the players who formed the backbone of the previous team are no longer eligible to represent their country at U-21 level due to age restrictions.
New, young players need time to acquit themselves with the demands of international football and Miller had urged patience but the team's plucky performance in their 1-0 defeat away to Slovenia last month should have bolstered the boys' confidence ahead of their remaining qualifiers.
"We cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security after just one game," Haber said. "The bulk of the players are new to this level and it's imperative that we continue to work hard to improve in the long term.
"The games against Macedonia (friendly) and Slovenia have helped to increase the bond between the players but we are still short on experience. My advice is that we concentrate on doing the simple things right at first so as not to put undue pressure on ourselves during games," the 21-year-old goalkeeper said.
Israel and France would certainly prove to be very tough opponents for our young guns. Suffice to say that France, the benchmark for the development of young talent, were UEFA U-21 finalists earlier this year, losing to a strong Czech Republic team who had beaten Malta U-21 twice in the qualifiers.
Israel have also come a long way in recent years and home critics are unified in their conviction that this is their best U-21 edition for decades.
Though wary of the threat of Israel and France, Haber said that the Maltese players are looking forward to meeting them. "The atmosphere is good. We are aware of the pedigree of our opponents but that makes us more willing to play them."
Haber's knowledge of Israel is quite good as he was in the Malta U-16 team that lost 2-0 to them in a tournament. "I remember that Israel U-16s had very strong midfielders and a giant of a goalkeeper. We created a few chances against them but failed to score."
At a recent news conference, Miller hinted that he may opt for more offensive tactics for these home games. Against Slovenia, the former Sliema and Hibs coach fielded a 3-4-2-1 formation with Marsaxlokk's Brandon Zammit and Andrew Cohen of Hibernians providing support for striker Antoine Zahra.
Zahra has just recovered from a hamstring problem which sidelined him for three weeks but he is unlikely to start. His place may be taken by Cohen with Gareth Sciberras, so influential for Pietà Hotspurs in a midfield role, and Roderick Briffa, who has been named in Miller's 19-man squad on the back of his convincing performances for Birkirkara, roaming behind him.
Sliema Wanderers' Kevin Sammut and Jonathan Bondin will be expected to provide graft in the middle of park with Floriana's sturdy defender-cum-midfielder Etienne Barbara again given the onus to marshal the defence. Shaun Tellus and Ian Azzopardi have been confirmed in Malta's initial XI after their solid performances in the 1-0 defeat to Slovenia. Clifton Ciantar and Clint Micallef will patrol the flanks.
Brandon Zammit, one of the best players in the 1-0 defeat to Slovenia, has been omitted from the starting line-up as Miller opted for the in-form Briffa.
Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza has also earned himself a chance to represent Malta at U-21 level after a couple of good performances for his club but he is likely to be introduced as a substitute if Miller elects to reinforce his attacking lines.
Malta U-21 formation: J. Haber, C. Micallef, C. Ciantar, I. Azzopardi, S. Tellus, E. Barbara, K. Sammut, J. Bondin, G. Sciberras, A. Cohen, R. Briffa.
Referee: K. Kostadinov (Bulgaria).