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Hutchinson back in Malta’s fold for tough Croatia clash

Coach Buttigieg encourages players to think positive

John Hutchinson (left) last featured for Malta in the 4-0 defeat away to Portugal in a 2010 World Cup qualifier, played on October 14, 2009. Photo: Paul Zammit Cutajar

John Hutchinson (left) last featured for Malta in the 4-0 defeat away to Portugal in a 2010 World Cup qualifier, played on October 14, 2009. Photo: Paul Zammit Cutajar

Central Coast Mariners midfielder John Hutchinson is set to revive his international career after being named in Malta’s provisional squad for next Wednesday’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Croatia.

Hutchinson’s absence from Malta’s opening three Group F matches had raised doubts about his international future but the 30-year-old has heeded coach John Buttigieg’s call to rejoin the squad for next week’s daunting qualifier at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb.

“Hutchinson had informed us that he couldn’t play in the opening qualifiers due to club commitments,” Buttigieg told a news conference at the Centenary Hall yesterday.

“Getting the foreign-based players over to Malta (for international matches) can be difficult, moreso when you have to bring over players from Australia because of the travelling.

“But, we needed this player (Hutchinson) for this game and that’s why we’ve called him.”

Fielding a question about Hutchinson’s attributes vis-à-vis the other central midfielders in his squad, Buttigieg replied: “I believe Hutchinson deserves to be in the 18-man squad. He’s playing in a stronger championship than our Premier League.”

Apart from Hutchinson’s return, Buttigieg’s provisional selection contains no surprises as the Malta coach has effectively kept faith with the players who form part of the national pool.

Daniel Bogdanovic, the Sheffield United forward, is back in the frame after suspension kept him out of Malta’s 1-0 defeat to Georgia but Buttigieg can’t rely on AS Melfi defender Andrei Agius and Hibs’ playmaker Andrew Cohen. Both received a one-match ban after collecting their second yellow card of the competition in last month’s qualifier in Tbilisi.

With Valletta’s Kenneth Scicluna still recuperating from hernia surgery, Buttigieg has a shortage of recognised centre-halves but he saw no need to bring in defensive reinforcements.

Buttigieg is confident that other players in his squad can deputise for the suspended Agius against Croatia.

“I believe there are other players in our squad who can play in a defensive position,” Buttigieg said.

Massimo Grima, of Ħamrun Spartans, and Birkirkara’s Joseph Zerafa, have played at centre-half for their clubs occasionally. Marsaxlokk’s Gareth Sciberras may also be considered as a candidate to replace Agius, but Buttigieg would not be drawn on the subject.

Not for the first time in the last 16 months, Buttigieg has ignored calls to axe Michael Mifsud by retaining the Malta captain in his squad despite his lack of competitive action.

Mifsud, the national team’s all-time leading scorer with 25 goals, has been without a club since his short-term deal with Valletta came to an end last May.

Amid reports that Mifsud was overseas last week to hold talks with a foreign club, possibly MLS outfit Chicago Fire, Buttigieg dismissed concerns about the striker’s fitness in light of his absence from training with the national squad

“I wouldn’t have selected Michael Mifsud if his physical condition was not good,” Buttigieg said.

“He hasn’t missed much lately because we haven’t trained regularly due to domestic matches. Also, according to the information I’ve received, Michael Mifsud took part in training sessions during the time he spent abroad.”

With no points from their first three qualifiers, Malta are aware that their chances of getting off the mark in their qualifier against Croatia are very remote. Buttigieg knows that his team will be up against it in Zagreb but he is backing his players to build on what he described as positive performances in their last two competitive outings.

“This will be our fourth game in the group and the third away from home,” Buttigieg commented.

“All matches are difficult, especially against a strong team like Croatia who are among the top favourites to qualify from our group.

“That said, we have to remain positive. We have to look back on our performances and try to build on them because, in my opinion, the team fared well in the last two qualifiers. The only thing that has been missing is the result and that’s what counts in football.

“I’m convinced that the players will give their all as they’ve always done. We know that our next opponents are very strong but we have to believe in our ability to produce a good performance.”

Asked if he had envisaged that Malta would still be pointless going into their fourth qualifier, Buttigieg replied: “We always do our best but football can be strange at times and nothing is guaranteed.

“I was hopeful that the team would have something to show after three qualifiers… I think we deserved something from our home game against Latvia (0-2) and everyone knows what happened in our last game against Georgia.

“We conceded a goal in stoppage time after missing a great opportunity to go ahead on 80 minutes. This just emphasises the importance of taking our chances.”

Birkirkara duo Shaun Bajada and Trevor Cilia are in Buttigieg’s 23-strong list despite suffering injury setbacks in the last few weeks.

Bajada made his comeback in Birkirkara’s 1-1 draw against Vittoriosa Stars last week after completing his recovery from the ankle injury he suffered in the league match against Valletta last month.

Cilia missed Birkirkara’s last game after picking a knee injury in the previous outing against Ħamrun but Buttigieg is confident that the winger will have regained his fitness by the time the Malta squad flies out to Zagreb on Sunday morning.

Greece lead Group F with eight points from four matches, one point above Croatia who have played a game less. Georgia are third with six points, two ahead of Israel and Latvia. Malta have no points.

Provisional squad

Goalkeepers: A. Curmi (Tarxien), J. Haber (Ferencvaros), A. Hogg (Valletta), M. Muscat (Hibs).

Defenders: J. Caruana (Valletta), E. Herrera (Hibs), C. Mamo (Marsaxlokk), J. Zerafa (Birkirkara), M. Grima (Ħamrun Spartans).

Midfielders: R. Briffa (Valletta), T. Cilia (Birkirkara), S. Bajada (Birkirkara), P. Fenech (Bir-kirkara), R. Fenech (Ħamrun Spartans), J. Hutchinson (Central Coast Mariners), J. Pace (Valletta), K. Sammut (Valletta), G. Sciberras (Marsaxlokk).

Forwards: D. Bogdanovic (Sheffield United), C. Caruana (Floriana), M. Mifsud (no club), A. Schembri (Ferencvaros), I. Woods (Floriana).

U-21 friendly

On the same day as Malta’s Euro 2012 qualifier in Croatia, the U-21 team will meet Cyprus in a friendly at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia.

Edwin Camilleri, the Malta U-21 coach, has announced a provisional 20-strong squad for Wednesday’s game:

Goalkeepers: D. Balzan (Hibs), S. Sultana (Nadur).

Defenders: O. Bugeja (Floriana), W. Camilleri (St Andrew’s), C. Cassar (Pietà), K. Farrugia (Mosta), A. Scicluna (Mqabba), L. Micallef (Melita), J. Xerri (Vittoriosa).

Midfielders: T. Caruana (Hibs), M. Ciantar (Sliema), D. Grima (Balzan), M. Gauci (Hibs), S. Grech (Pietà), L. Martinelli (Melita), M. Scerri (Sliema), R. Muscat (Birkirkara).

Forwards: M. Grioli (Mqabba), L. Micallef (Mosta), T. Vella (Birkirkara).

* * *

U*BET FA Trophy
(first round fixtures)

Today: Hibs Stadium – 6 p.m. Lija Athletic vs Floriana; 8 p.m. Marsaxlokk vs Mqabba. Tedesco Stadium – 6 p.m. Dingli vs Mosta; 8.15 p.m. Ħamrun vs Melita.
Tomorrow: Tedesco Stadium – 2 p.m. Hibs vs Pietà; 4.15 p.m. Balzan vs Tarxien.
Sunday: Centenary Stadium – 2 p.m. St George’s vs St Andrew’s. Gozo Stadium – 2 p.m. Victoria Hotspurs vs Vittoriosa Stars.

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