Late Malta rally brings no reward
A batch of untried players blended with their more experienced counterparts yesterday as Mark Miller's 'new' U-21 side locked horns with Tunisia in a friendly at the National Stadium.
Malta ended on the wrong side of a 2-1 scoreline but the commitment shown by the young home team, especially their late endeavours in search of an equaliser, should have raised the spirits of the U-21 clan as well as the few spectators who bothered to turn up for the match.
Although most of the leading personnel from the last edition of the U-21 squad are no longer in the frame because of age restrictions, the team yesterday featured a posse of players with considerable experience at this level.
Of the starting 11, only Hamrun's Ryan Fenech, Edward Herrera, the Melita striker, and Joel Sammut Vasques can be described as novices.
Interestingly, Miller's selection contained two foreign-based players, Sammut Vasques, now on the books of Legia Warsaw, and the more established Andrei Agius who was with Messina last season.
Barely 90 seconds from the start of the game had passed when Malta threatened to grab the lead.
Matthew Bartolo was the provider with a dipping free-kick that soared above the Tunisian defence before landing in front of the unmarked Alex Muscat at the far post. The Malta captain should have done better than rolling the ball against the side-netting from a good position.
After this early scare, Tunisia upped the tempo to enjoy a greater share of possession. Still, it took the visitors 16 minutes to produce their first chance of note, striker Hamdi Harbaqui rifling a shot high from the edge of the box after a cross from Dhaoudi Zouheir caught the Maltese defence on the wrong foot.
Despite its friendly tag, the opening exchanges were imbued with a competitive spirit that often translated itself into abrasive tackles.
Malta stood their territory well with the nimble Matthew Bartolo proving a handful for the Tunisia defenders with his pace on the right.
Home perseverance was rewarded with a goal after 28 minutes, Fenech blasting the ball in from a goalmouth melee after Herrera's backward header had been parried by Smida Faouazi.
Malta's joy was shortlived as barely two minutes later, Tunisia were back on level terms after referee Chris Lautier whistled a penalty for Tunisia for what appeared to be a slight contact between Josef Mifsud and Ghanen Borhen. Gharzoul Mohamed Ali beat Andrew Hogg from the spot.
Malta might have regained their lead on the stroke of half-time when the alert Bartolo capitalised on a short backpass but the Tunisian keeper dashed out to block.
The first chance of the second half fell to Tunisia's Mouihbi Youssef who, having drifted clear of a crowded box, produced a rising shot which was deflected away for a corner.
The better football in the opening stages came from the north Africans who deservedly went ahead midway through, striker Harbaqui powering the ball past the hapless Hogg after being set up by substitute Gamoudi Maher.
Chris Caruana was among a host of players who entered the fray in the second half. Now one goal in arrears, Malta rolled up their sleeves with the likes of Falzon and substitute Ian Zammit very much at the heart of the home team's attempts of a comeback.
The incoming Angus Buhagiar almost left an instant impact on the game with an looping volley but Faouazi pushed the ball over the bar.
Five minutes from time, Steve Bezzina was denied by the Tunisia keeper after some good work by Caruana and Zammit sent his shot wide from the rebound.
In time added on, a free-kick by Agius flashed wide of the far post.
Malta: A. Hogg, A. Muscat, C. Failla, A. Agius, J. Mifsud, P. Fenech, M. Bartolo ('83 A. Buhagiar), E. Herrera ('72 C. Caruana), D. Falzon ('90 T. Farrugia), R. Fenech ('50 S. Bezzina), J. Sammut Vasques ('46 I. Zammit).
Tunisia: S. Faouazi, B. Aymen, S. Khaled ('46 O. Khemili), B. Karim, G. Mohamed Ali, N. Mohamed Ali ('82 Q. Hichri), M. Youssef, G. Borhen ('46 G. Maher), D. Zouheir ('62 A. Maatoug), H. Harbaqui ('90 H. Jebali), K. Korbi.
Referee: Chris Lautier.
Scorers: Fenech 28; G. Mohamed Ali 30 Pen.; Harbaqui 68.