Two goals from Ermin Šiljak helped Slovenia take another stride towards cementing the runners-up berth in UEFA EURO 2004™ Group 1 with a comfortable 3-1 victory against bottom side Malta in Ta' Qali.
Slovenia now sit two points clear of Israel in second place with three wins from four games - their only defeat coming at the hands of runaway group leaders France. This latest victory was never in doubt once Zlatko Zahovic had sent a majestic free-kick dipping into the Malta net on 15 minutes.
Nastja Ceh, a creative influence throughout the game, attempted to weave his way through the Maltese midfield and won the free-kick 23 metres from goal after Luke Dimech's foul. The bearded Zahovic stepped up to curl the free-kick directly over the wall with his left foot and leave goalkeeper Mario Muscat groping at thin air.
Malta twice went close to equalising either side of the youngest player on the pitch, the 21-year-old Goran Šukalo, sending a looping header narrowly over the bar for the visitors. First Chucks Nwoko forced a brave stop from Marko Simeunovic, then Michael Mifsud watched in disbelief as the visiting goalkeeper blocked his angled drive.
Šiljak scored his first goal nine minutes before half-time, latching on to Ceh's through-pass and loping into the Malta area before drilling the ball past Muscat to make it 2-0. It could have been worse by the break but Muscat made a fine diving save to deny Zahovic a repeat strike from another free-kick.
Just before the hour, Slovenia further extended their lead. Ceh took the ball down the inside-right channel to the by-line and chipped a cross towards the far post where, after Muscat's fumble, Šiljak pounced, thumping a left-foot shot into the unguarded net.
Zahovic went close with another free-kick and Šiljak had three great chances to complete his hat-trick; first drawing a wonderful low save from Muscat, then seeing his header from the ensuing corner cleared off the line and finally drilling an effort wide with just the goalkeeper to beat.
With the finishing line in sight, Slovenia began to ease up and allowed Malta to creep back into the game. A goalline clearance with five minutes remaining failed to raise the Slovenian defence from their slumber and Malta's consolation goal came during added time. The industrious Michael Mifsud was afforded time and space to turn and squeeze an effort into the net via Simeunovic and the keeper's left-hand post for what was only Malta's second goal in the competition.