By Georgios Tontos
Gibraltar played their first round of World Cup qualifiers in March, with their games against Norway and The Netherlands the first such qualifiers played on home soil – their home games in previous campaigns being played in Portugal.
It was anticipated from the beginning that Gibraltar’s mission would be a difficult one in such a strong group. Gibraltar will have aimed to not finish last and perhaps cause an upset or two, after proving in the Nations League that the team is capable of getting results.
However, three comprehensive defeats (0-3 against Norway, 4-1 in Montenegro and 0-7 against The Netherlands) characterised a difficult start, with Gibraltar’s penalty against Montenegro the only response to 14 goals.
The national side fought to its fullest across the three games, as we have grown accustomed to over these past two years. Expectations were lower against Norway and Holland than they might have been against Montenegro, given the gulf in quality and experience between Gibraltar and the first two sides, and while none of the results went Gibraltar’s way, hard lessons were learned that will make the side stronger and more resilient over the rest of the campaign, which is expected to continue to be a learning experience for the team.
Gibraltar opened well against Norway, playing a compact game with five at the back and reading the Scandinavian side well, minimising their threat, which came mainly in the shape of Erling Haaland. The 20 year old superstar took just 11 minutes to have his first sniff at goal, but he couldn’t find a way past Dayle Coleing, whose heroic performance was all that kept the scoreline down. Norway’s first two goals came in quick succession just before the halftime break, and they controlled the game in the second half, putting the game beyond Gibraltar’s reach with a third shortly after the break.
The 4-1 defeat at Montenegro was more unexpected than the loss to Norway, with Julio Ribas fielding a much-changed side in Podgorica – ten changes to the Norway game. The home side took the lead 25 minutes in after controlling the opening, but Gibraltar were level within five minutes – Reece Styche stepping up to the spot to convert a penalty – although Erin Barnett might have felt that his disallowed goal from Alain Pons’ freekick should have stood, rather than being disallowed and the penalty awarded. Gibraltar’s hopes were short lived though, three more goals from the home team gave them a comfortable and deserved victory.
The final game of the international break was huge not only due to the opposition, but because it signalled the fans’ return to the Victoria Stadium after a year behind closed doors. Arguably the best side in the group, the Dutch had a tough start to the game and although they controlled the game, could not break through the Gibraltar defence.
Julio Ribas again made wholesale changes to the starting eleven, returning to most of the players he started against Norway, other than for Jayce Olivero making way for Ethan Jolley. Frank De Boer named an unchanged side after their win at Latvia.
Dayle Coleing was again the stand-out performer, making many crucial saves, and it took until a few minutes before half time for the visitors managed to get on the scoresheet.
The Netherlands made better use of their superiority in the second half, scoring two in the first ten minutes and following up with four further goals to cement a comprehensive victory.
The national side’s next qualifiers will take place in September with three more matches against Latvia, Turkey and Norway between the 1st and 7th, although the team will return to action in June, with two friendlies against Slovenia and Andorra scheduled.