Estonia beat Malta with late Anier strike to win Nations League group
The Estonian men's football team defeated Malta 2-1 at home in the UEFA Nations League on Friday, thanks to another late winner from Henri Anier. The victory gives Estonia first place in League D, Group 2 with one game to spare, while also guaranteeing promotion to Nations League C for the 2024/2025 season. On Monday evening, Estonia face San Marino away from home in their final Nations League match of the season.
While Malta may have seen more of the ball in the first half, the visitors were unable to make their superior possession count, with the best chances all falling to Estonia.
Just four minutes in, Sergei Zenjov first latched onto a misplaced pass from the Maltese defense, before playing in Flora Tallinn clubmate Konstantin Vassiljev who saw his shot bounce back off the post and into the path of Bogdan Vaštšuk. Though Vaštšuk, of Polish side Stal Mielec, put the ball into the net, the goal was disallowed for handball, denying him what would have been a memorable first strike for the national team.
After Rauno Sappinen also saw a goal chalked off for a foul, Estonia may have been forgiven for thinking it was going to be one of those nights. But, with the first half drawing to a close, Vassiljev crossed for Zenjov, who was brought down in the penalty area by Malta defender Jean Borg. After consulting VAR, referee Daniel Siebert pointed to the spot and handed Borg a red card for his troubles. Sappinen then stepped up to convert the penalty, giving Estonia the lead going into the break.
After the restart, it was Malta's turn to be awarded a penalty thanks to a little help from VAR ,after substitute Taijo Teniste (Tartu Tammeka) handled in the box. Estonian goalkeeper Karl Jakob Hein (Arsenal), who saved a penalty from Teddy Teuma when the sides met in Malta, was unable to repeat the heroics on this occasion, despite diving the right way.
With the score at 1-1, Estonia struggled to build fluency on the ball, carelessly conceding possession on several occasions. Then, with four minutes to go, Henri Anier, who scored a 94th minute winner in Malta earlier in the competition, popped up with another crucial goal, this time slotting home from Zenjov's pass, to give Estonia all three points.
The victory not only means Estonia finish as group winners, but also earns the team promotion to League C, and the chance to test themselves against stronger opponents, in the next installment of the competition.
"We achieved our aim of moving up from League D to League C," said Anier, who plays his club football for Thai League 1 side Muangthong United, after the match.
"There are no easy games at international level, as today showed. The ball went from one end to another. But we achieved our aim, which was really important for the team, for Estonian football and for Estonia," said Anier.
Estonia's victory was even more impressive in light of the absence of several key players, including Ragnar Klavan (Paide Linnameeskond), Mattias Käit (Rapid Bucharest) and Märten Kuus (Ujpest). "I'm sure they were really rooting for us," said Anier of his absent teammates.
"We have a very good energy in the squad, and as I said before, we achieved our goal and it came very sweetly. A big thank you to the home crowd who came out to support us," the striker said.
Though top spot in Nations League Group D is already assured, Estonia still have one remaining game left to play, away against San Marino on Monday evening. Anier said, that the team have no intention of taking it lightly, and are keen to finish the competition with a perfect record.
"For sure, we are not just going out there to enjoy it. We mustn't fall into our comfort zone. The goal is still to finish the group with maximum points, so we have to beat San Marino," said Anier.
Estonia's final game in this season's Nations League, away to San Marino kicks off at 9.45 p.m. Estonian time on Monday. The game will be shown live on ViaPlay here.
Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!
Editor: Michael Cole