Agius sees red as Malta fall apart in second half
Andrei Agius was sent off as Malta succumbed to a 3-0 defeat to Azerbaijan in a friendly at the Bakcell Arena in Baku yesterday.
After falling behind early on, Malta recovered to gain the upperhand as the first half wore on.
They pegged back the Azeris with a string of flowing counter-attacks but failure to convert their chances proved costly as the hosts doubled their lead just past hour and Agius’s dismissal shattered our comeback hopes.
Defeat was not only Malta’s first against Azerbaijan but also ended the team’s unbeaten six-match run in friendlies. It was a reality check for the national team after the euphoria that greeted their 1-0 victory over Armenia in a World Cup qualifier in June.
Coach Pietro Ghedin gave a debut to Mark Scerri who started at right-back. The returning Andrew Cohen took up wide position on the left of midfield as Clayton Failla dropped to left-back.
In attack, Andre Schembri was deployed behind captain Michael Mifsud who earned his 97th cap for the country. Sliema Wanderers duo Jacob Borg and Clifford Gatt Baldacchino also made their first appearance for Malta after coming on as substitutes.
Azerbaijan took only five minutes to open the scoring. The goal came from Rufat Dadashov who beat Justin Haber with a far-post header as Scerri’s desperate attempt to clear the ball proved futile.
Malta refused to lie down. They regrouped and piled the pressure on the hosts.
Roderick Briffa, who resumed his central midfield partnership with Gareth Sciberras, rifled over from just outside the Azerbaijan penalty area as Malta grew in confidence.
On 21 minutes, Schembri also hit wide after Azerbaijan had panicked as they tried to clear a long ball towards the advancing Mifsud.
Azerbaijan were causing Malta problems down the left wing as Scerri, who usually plays as a holding midfielder for his club, looked uneasy at right-back.
This was evident on 25 minutes when Araz Abdullayev raced past Scerri but his volley from an ideal position was high.
Ghedin’s men were quick to respond. Sciberras galloped forward before releasing Mifsud but the captain stumbled before surrendering possession with a miscued pass.
Ten minutes from half-time, Malta should have equalised as another fluid attack saw Schembri exchange passes with Edward Herrera before side-stepping Rasim Ramaldanov but his effort was tame and Azeri goalkeeper Kamran Aghayev saved.
After Briffa lifted his free-kick over the bar, Azerbaijan came close to a second goal when Abdullayev again burst forward on the left before crossing low for Dadashov whose was stopped by Hogg.
Borg came on for Scerri at half-time but Malta’s difficulties on the right flank persisted.
Two minutes past the hour, Azerbaijan increased their lead as Rauf Aliyev skipped past a series of half-hearted challenges inside the Malta box before guiding the ball past Haber from an angled position.
With the game slipping away from them, Malta suffered another hammer blow on 69 minutes when Agius was dismissed for hauling down Dadashov.
Ghedin threw on Gatt Baldacchino for Cohen but, with 21 minutes remaining, Malta conceded a third goal, Dadashov despatching a fine volley past Haber.
The Maltese keeper denied Azerbaijan a fourth when blocking Abdullayev’s shot after another defensive blunder inside Haber’s box.
Three minutes from time, Rowen Muscat, a late substitute for Briffa, had a diagonal shot saved by Aghayev.
K. Aghayev, B. Huseynov (88 M. Medvedyev), R. Ramaldanov, M. Shukurov (78 R. Sadigov), R. Aliyev, R. Abishov, A. Abdullayev, U. Budak (46 E. Allahverdiyev), A. Ismayilov, G. Garayev (61 E. Armiguliyev), R. Dadashov (80 V. Askerov).
J. Haber, R. Camilleri, G. Sciberras (88 J. Mintoff), A. Agius, C. Failla, R. Briffa (76 R. Muscat), M. Mifsud, A. Cohen (69 C. Gatt Baldacchino), E. Herrera (62 R. Fenech), A. Schembri (P. Fenech 73), M. Scerri (46 J. Borg).
Referee: Alexandre Aliyev (Kazakhstan).
Red card: Agius 69.