There is a tendency towards introspection in the Wigan Athletic forward, and he can seem careworn at times, but that is the burden he carries for his talent. He has established himself as one of the three forwards in the English club's 3-4-3 formation, and his busy, scurrying style and clever opportunism have become a significant factor in their progress. It is Scotland who are now in need of his ability to revitalise a team during games.
Maloney's last outing for the national team was in central midfield during the 1-1 draw with Macedonia at Hampden last month, but the additional responsibilities of that role would have preyed on him. He is at his best when free to apply his imagination, and a succession of managers at club and international level have retained their faith in him when injuries have disrupted his career. Craig Levein might not find a talisman in Maloney, but he if he selects the forward against Wales, he will deploy the creativity and resourcefulness that might prove decisive in a game with the potential to become a tense, uncompromising struggle.
It will also be a clash of anxieties. By drawing their opening two games, at home to Serbia then Macedonia, Scotland have started with a setback in the World Cup qualifying campaign. Wales suffered their own woes, including a 6-1 defeat to Serbia, but both nations are also troubled by longing. Wales have only reached the finals of one major tournament – the 1958 World Cup in Sweden – while it is 14 years since Scotland last did the same. That separation from the pinnacle of the game has been painful for both countries.
"Ever since I've been in the squad, it's been talked about that the last tournament was France in 1998," Maloney said. "At the start of each campaign, there is this near desperation from supporters, media and the squad as well to qualify for a major tournament. Another one has started and there is that same desperation. It's just something we all want. I don't think we will be short on effort to get there. It's going to be down to whether we are good enough as a team. I guess we'll find out pretty soon if we are."
The comment is typical of Maloney: astute, self-aware, thoughtful. In many ways, his performances are a contrast to his personality, since so much of his game is based upon being unabashed and bold. With Steven Naismith suspended, Kris Commons having only just returned to the squad and Jamie Mackie providing pace and power rather then guile, it may fall to Maloney to be the source of the ingenuity that creates chances for Steven Fletcher up front.
As much as Scotland ought to be wary of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, there is little chance of Levein's players being daunted. Fletcher, Maloney, Gary Caldwell, Christophe Berra, Alan Hutton, James Morrison and Darren Fletcher have all faced the best of the Welsh players regularly in the Barclays Premier League. Wigan, in particular, have proved adept at overcoming expectations, not least towards the end of last season when a burst of form lifted them out of the relegation battle, and included Maloney scoring the winning goal in a victory over Manchester United at the DW Stadium.
"Form-wise, [Steven Fletcher] is among the best strikers in the Premier League," Maloney said. "He was outstanding against [Wigan] – not just his goal but his all-round play was very good. I don't think we have any excuse at any time, regardless of what players we do or don't have. But it is good to have Darren back. He is held in such high esteem among the squad. [Scotland's form] is obviously going to have to get a lot better from here on in if we're going to qualify. A win against [Wales] would certainly give us a better chance. It's a massively important game for both teams. They've lost twice so it would be an uphill task for Wales if we were to beat them."
In effect, it is survival that is at stake, at least in the sense that the winners on Friday would have maintained their place among the challengers in Group A. It is early to encounter such a decisive moment, but any points dropped at home were always likely to be crucial. Scotland defeated Wales in the Carling Nations Cup last season, and ought to consider this a test of their credentials.
In the same way Wigan seldom encounter a straightforward task in the Premier League, Scotland will have to deliver the best of themselves in every game in this campaign. That has not happened so far, and it might require a moment of aplomb – the kind of quick-witted accomplishment that Maloney can produce – to lift the team against Wales. Beyond that, the task against Belgium is to hang on to some level of competitiveness.
"After drawing the first two games, a win in Wales would give us a massive bonus," Maloney said. "But even if we win on Friday, it's going to be very difficult against Belgium. I don't think we are going to have an easy match in this group. I've noticed that there seems to be Belgian players involved in almost every Premier League match now. They have got a hell of a squad. These players are fantastic and it will be great to test yourself against them. I played against some of them for Wigan against Everton at the weekend. We've also played Chelsea this season and Eden Hazard was really good. We are well aware of what to expect."
The expectations are both hopeful and grave, since the result seems pivotal. Maloney may have to provide Scotland's best opportunity to win the game.
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