Malta v Scotland: 'Anything other than an away win is unthinkable'

Malta's Andre Schembri in action against Italy's Andrea Pirlo
Malta's Andre Schembri made an impression on Italy hero Andrea Pirlo
World Cup qualifying Group F: Malta v Scotland
Date: Sunday, 4 September Venue: Ta'Qali National Stadium, Attard Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on BBC Sport website.

Scotland will come up against some serious pedigree on the road to Russia over the next 13 months.

The youthful English exuberance of Dele Alli and Harry Kane.

The Slovakian attacking menace of Napoli's Marek Hamsik and AC Milan's Juraj Kucka.

The steel iron last line of Atletico Madrid, Slovenia goalkeeper Jan Oblak.

However, none has three pages devoted to them by one of the greatest playmakers of all time.

Impressed is probably the wrong word to describe Italy legend Andrea Pirlo's opinion of Malta's Andre Schembri.

The Boavista player's man-marking performance during the last World Cup qualifying campaign was so unorthodox it convinced Pirlo to name-check the little-known midfielder in his autobiography. Chapter 15 to be exact.

While the Maltese lost the match in Modena, Pirlo - who has got the better of luminaries such as Zinedine Zidane, Michael Ballack and Steven Gerrard across an illustrious career - toiled against Schembri.

'Football kamikaze'

"Schembri was like some kind of footballing kamikaze, I was the victim of a close encounter of the third kind," Pirlo noted, adding: "Had we been alone in a dark alley and not on a football pitch I'd have been within my rights to report that his passion had turned a little violent, because he certainly wasn't holding back on the physical stuff."

During the game, World Cup and Champions League winner Pirlo enquired, in industrial terms, what his opponent was up to.

"Our coach said the only thing I should think about is marking you," said Schembri. "My mission is to stop you."

Scotland beat Malta 3-2 in a 1997 friendly match
Scotland's last visit to Malta was for a 3-2 friendly victory in 1997

While the Scots do not possess a Pirlo within their ranks, it is clear from this and the noises emanating from Malta coach Pietro Ghedin - whose orders Schembri followed to the letter that evening - that the hosts intend to be as stubborn as possible in Sunday's World Cup opener.

Not always the kind of tactics Scotland relish coming up against.

Anything other than an away win is unthinkable against a side that has only ever won two World Cup qualifiers and only once since the two nations were last paired together for a place at the 1994 finals.

Since that campaign, the Maltese - who are at their lowest ever Fifa ranking of 176 - have finished bottom of their section in each of their 11 groups with just one victory all told in the last three years - against fellow Group F participants Lithuania.

They are also the only side to lose to Gibraltar at full international level.

But they approach this clash with confidence according to Ghedin, who described this week's 1-1 draw with former European Championship play-off participants Estonia as one of their best performances since he retook the reins in 2012.

Italian Ghedin is enjoying his second spell in charge of Malta and is famed for his defensive tactics.

Understandably so, given he played for Serie A heavyweights Fiorentina and Lazio in the 1970s and 80s.

He also assisted the Italy national team alongside head coaches Cesare Maldini, Dino Zoff and Giovanni Trapattoni at major finals before a spell in charge of the senior women's team.

Birkirkara win offers hosts hope

Birkirkara knocked Hearts out of Europa League qualifying
Maltese side Birkirkara got the better of Hearts in Europa League qualifying

The normally pragmatic Ghedin does have attacking options that he may now be tempted to loosen the leash on after a promising show in Tallinn.

Luke Gambin plies his trade at English League Two side Barnet and along with Schembri and Nigeria-born Alfred Effiong, is likely to start against the Scots.

Effiong scored the Maltese equaliser against Estonia and picked up a knock but is expected to be fit, much to his manager's relief.

Another two who will have important roles to play will be familiar to Hearts supporters.

Left-back and captain Joseph Zerafa and midfielder Gareth Sciberras both play for Birkirkara, who knocked the Edinburgh side out of Europa League qualifying in July, and their Tynecastle experience will be called upon.

On paper at least, this is the easiest of Scotland's away fixtures in the group. But, with a record of just two wins in their last nine campaign curtain-raisers, Scottish success will not be a given.

While the Maltese are recognised as one of the weaker nations in European football, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia and Bulgaria have all had their own recent struggles against them, each prevailing by 1-0 margins.

Pirlo asked Schembri during their tussle: "Are you actually having fun out here? I feel sorry for you."

He replied: "Who said anything about having fun?"

Scotland have been warned.

And in case you were wondering, Schembri was booked that evening in Modena. For a foul on Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne.

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