Both beaten in their opening game of Euro 2024 qualifying, Malta and reigning European champions Italy meet in Ta’Qali on Sunday.
While the hosts lost 2-1 to the Italians’ World Cup playoff nemesis North Macedonia, their neighbours suffered a home defeat to Group C favourites England.
Following a turgid first 45 minutes at Stadio Maradona in midweek, Italy’s defence of their continental crown had made a miserable start, and though Roberto Mancini’s men fought back to push England close, they came away from Naples empty-handed.
One of the few highlights from an Italian perspective was the goalscoring debut of Argentina-born striker Mateo Retegui, who was drafted into the squad via the infamous ‘grandparent rule’, despite having never before played in Italy.
Decimated by injury, and lacking both energy and confidence following their latest World Cup qualifying debacle, the Azzurri proved a pale shadow of the side which lifted the European Championship trophy in the summer of 2021.
Though they managed to top their Nations League group – also featuring England – over the intervening period, they already trail the Three Lions in the race to win Group C and reach next year’s finals in style. Avoiding the playoffs at all cost will be high on Mancini’s agenda given the events of recent years, so securing at least a top-two finish is La Nazionale’s minimum requirement.
Fortunately for the former Manchester City coach, his team will have the chance to bounce back quickly in Malta this weekend, in their final fixture before June’s Nations League finale kicks off with a semi-final against Spain.
Before finally falling to England on Thursday, Italy had won each of their previous 14 qualification games and were unbeaten in 40. Having also beaten their Mediterranean neighbours in all eight past qualifying encounters, they will expect to get off the mark with a first win of the campaign.
Group C minnows Malta travelled to Skopje on Thursday, and an opening-day defeat to North Macedonia already leaves them staring at a last-placed finish.
Despite holding out for over an hour, Napoli’s Eljif Elmas broke the deadlock midway through the second half, and after conceding again six minutes later, FIFA’s 167th-ranked nation could only reply with a late consolation goal from Yannick Yankam.
Having lost his first match as Malta’s head coach following his appointment to the role in December, former Italy Under-18 international Michele Marcolini now faces the country of his birth in an even more challenging encounter.
The Falcons have never made it to a major finals before – no surprise given their stature in the European game – and in a group also featuring Ukraine they may do well to even tally a couple of points in their remaining qualifiers.
Having only finished ahead of San Marino in their most recent Nations League group, optimism was already thin on the ground, and Marcolini’s men could be in for a rough ride over the coming months – particularly on Sunday evening.
Malta Euro Champ Qualifying form:
Malta form (all competitions):
Italy Euro Champ Qualifying form:
Italy form (all competitions):
We say: Malta 0-2 Italy
Italy were unimpressive as an attacking force in their Euro qualifying opener, but a number of fringe players – such as Gnonto, Grifo and Politano – could now come to the fore against less demanding opponents. Malta may have shown signs of improvement, but denying the Azzurri victory this weekend is a feat beyond their wildest dreams.