Resilient Reds go down fighting

Resilient Reds go down fighting

Luck deserts Maltese as woodwork twice comes to Bulgaria’s rescue

Andre Schembri (centre) finds his way closed down. Photo: Darrin Zammit LupiAndre Schembri (centre) finds his way closed down. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Malta 1
Herrera 78;
Bulgaria 2
Dimitrov 9; Gargorov 60;

With the clock ticking down, Malta threw caution to the wind.

They surged forward ceaselessly, demonstrating not only great character and resilience but also creativity to rattle Bulgaria.

A rash of yellow cards to our opponents in the last 10 minutes underlined their difficulties to withstand the waves of Maltese attacks but, as in Friday’s 2-1 defeat to Denmark, the Reds had nothing to show for their efforts in the end.

Bulgaria prevailed by their odd goal in three and their performance showed why they are favourites to claim a World Cup play-off spot but Malta’s showing was further proof of their improvement in the last few years.

Bulgaria were technically better and some of their football was of the textbook type.

There were passages during the game when Bulgaria, galvanised by an early goal, threatened to sweep the locals off their feet but that only told half the story.

Minnows Malta have become a fearless side under Pietro Ghedin.

Digging in when Bulgaria piled on the pressure, the home players always found the energy, willpower and technical ability to react, even when luck looked to have turned its back on them after twice being denied by the upright.

Malta had been on the ropes in the first half but the majority of the players looked rejuvenated after the break.

Edward Herrera was back to his marauding best in the second half, André Schembri conjured up some dazzling moves, Gareth Sciberras closed down tirelessly in midfield and central defenders Luke Dimech and Andrei Agius also raised their game by several notches.

Shame that Malta left the field empty-handed albeit comforted by a loud applause from the crowd at the final whistle and the knowledge that their spirited display had gone a long way towards making amends for their 6-0 rout in Sofia in the away game.

Malta’s four-man defence had a more familiar look yesterday as Dimech and Alex Muscat, back in the frame after suspension, duly regained their place in the initial XI.

Muscat replaced Roderick Briffa, suspended, while Dimech was preferred to John Mintoff who started on the bench.

The experienced Dimech and Agius occupied the two centre-half positions with Alex Muscat on the left and Ryan Camilleri on the right. Clayton Failla, who manned the left-back position against Denmark, was deployed on the left side of midfield with Sciberras and Rowen Muscat in the middle positions.

Herrera began on the right with Schembri handed roaming duties behind Michael Mifsud, Malta’s attacking spearhead who made his 99th appearance last night.

Malta had a glorious opportunity after barely 70 seconds. The architect was Mifsud whose powerful run unhinged the Bulgaria defence before releasing Herrera.

Cutting in from the right, Herrera delivered a low pass that just eluded Schembri with the ball rolling across the face of goal.

The bright start gave the home fans a much-needed boost after the hundreds of flag-waving Bulgarian supporters had been the more vocal. The unstinting efforts of the SouthEnd Core helped in no small way to enliven the atmosphere.

Another chance came Malta’s way when, from a corner, the ball was played short to Schembri whose cross was met by Agius but the latter’s header was high.

From the prospect of taking an early lead, Malta found themselves behind.

It was another soft goal as, after Schembri had been dispossessed near the left touchline, Radoslav Dimitrov’s cross from an angled position looked somewhat innocuous but Justin Haber’s attempt to palm the ball over the bar sent the ball into the back of his net.

The manner of Bulgaria’s goal will surely have frustrated the home players and Ghedin who had urged his charges to avoid a repeat of the same mistakes that proved costly against Denmark.

Home optimism rose when Malta won a foul in almost the same position from where Failla scored against Denmark.

Unsurprisingly, Failla stepped up to take the free-kick and his execution was again impeccable but Nikolay Mihaylov just managed to tip the ball away with the aid of the post.

On 18 minutes, Camilleri strode forward on the right before serving Mifsud who stormed clear of his marker but his cross found no takers.

Malta were matching Bulgaria but the visitors’ running, on and off the ball, and crisp passing made them awkward clients.

Midway into the first half, Emil Gargorov fired wide from the distance after another quick move by Lyuboslav Penev’s men.

Haber then parried away Nedelev’s long-range grounder and Milanov hit wide from the edge of the penalty area.

As the first half moved on, Bulgaria pummeled Malta with a series of crosses as Ghedin’s men laboured to cope with their opponents’ flowing football.

Eight minutes from half-time, Popov, arguably Bulgaria’s best player, sped into the box but his cross-cum-shot was blocked by Haber.

Camilleri’s mistake in giving the ball away highlighted the hosts’ troubles.

Milanov reacted quickly to nudge the ball away from the dithering Camilleri before picking out Popov who produced an audacious reverse flick only for Haber to push the ball away.

The two teams were unchanged after half-time but Ghedin instructed Muscat and Camilleri to swap flanks.

Early in the second half, Haber dashed out of his goal to anticipate Popov who had run through to meet Milanov’s cross.

Schembri then lit up the stadium with a superb move.

Receiving the ball from Herrera, Schembri waltzed past a clutch of defenders as he surged into the box, ball attached to his feet, but his grounder came off the post.

For the second time in the game, Malta were denied by the woodwork but Schembri’s run lifted the crowd as shouts of ‘Malta, Malta’ echoed at Ta’ Qali.

But, as in the first half, Bulgaria made the most of their good fortune as they went up at the other end to double their lead close to the hour.

The danger again came from the wings as Milanov burst through from the left but his low cross was cut out by Haber. The loose ball fell to Gargorov who blasted home.

This goal was a crushing blow for Malta but they refused to give in.

An inviting opening beckoned when Herrera galloped forward but his pass towards the un-marked Mifsud was deflected by a defender.

Mifsud then headed over from Herrera’s free-kick and, on 68 minutes, Schembri again showed some deft footwork to jink his way through before threading a through-ball to Mifsud whose strike was deflected away for a corner.

Malta protested for a penalty when Nikolay Bodurov put his body in the way of the steaming Schembri but the referee saw nothing wrong.

With 16 minutes remaining, Mihaylov tipped Herrera’s free-kick over the bar.

Terence Vella then came on for Mifsud. The Birkirkara forward made an instant impact as he released a perfect return pass to the advancing Herrera who hit past Mihaylov for Malta to pull one back.

Exuding confidence, Vella gave Malta fresh impetus in attack as the Reds tore into their opponents. Schembri’s cross from the right was inviting but the ball just by-passed Vella.

Malta managed to win a free-kick from an inviting position after Zlatinski felled Schembri but Fenech’s set-piece drive was blocked.

Aftermatch comments

Pietro Ghedin

• “My players really gave their all tonight, I’m impressed. This was another good performance by the team but again luck deserted us when we needed it most. This jinx seems to persist and lately it has hit us badly.

“In the first half, Bulgaria attacked us mostly from Camilleri’s flank but in the second half he lifted his game significantly and we were able to contain their attacking threat well.”

Edward Herrera

• “It was difficult for us to keep the same levels as Bulgaria as they started strongly and very aggressively. I think we did far better in the second half and after pulling a goal back our confidence was high. Suddenly, we all started to believe that we could have scored a second goal.

“The woodwork denied us on two occasions and there were other good opportunities for us as we created chances and worked for each other... we deserved an equaliser.

“I want to thank the SouthEnd Core guys for their backing even though, personally, I expected more people to come and give us their support following the good match we played against Denmark last week.

“Bulgaria had a lot of fans here... at times I thought they were the ones playing at home with all the noise they were making and the backing to their team.”

J. Haber, G. Sciberras, A. Agius, L. Dimech, C. Failla (66 R. Fenech), M. Mifsud (77 T. Vella), E. Herrera, A. Schembri, R. Muscat, R. Camilleri (82 J. Caruana), A. Muscat.

N. Mihaylov, R. Dimitrov, N. Bodurov, I. Ivanov, V. Minev, S. Dyakov, V. Gadzhev, I. Popov, G. Milanov (82 H. Zlatinski), E. Gargorov (61 D. Rangelov), T. Nedelev (66 S. Delev).

Referee: Dan Alexandru Tudor.

Yellow cards: Schembri; Rangelov; Bodurov; Fenech; Dyakov.

Attendance: 4,844.

Malta players’ ratings
Haber-7, Sciberras-7, Agius-7, Dimech-8, Failla-6.5, Mifsud-6.5, Herrera-7.5, Schembri-7.5, R. Muscat-6, R. Camilleri-6, A. Muscat-6.5.

Substitutes: Fenech-6.5; Vella-7.

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