Republic Of Ireland - 5, Malta - 0

 

One of the oldest records in football was rewritten as Robbie Keane led the revelry on an evening when a capacity attendance at Lansdowne Road savoured the spectacle of an Ireland team in full flood.

When Keane poked the ball home from Mark Kinsella's corner to push Malta towards the precipice within 14 minutes of the kick-off, he became the youngest to score for Ireland.

It was scarcely a thing of beauty, a long way removed from the execution of the original, but it sufficed to break a record which had stood in John Giles's name since 1959.

It was that kind of game on a carefree night when the Irish, at times, enjoyed the freedom of the park to indulge their skills, and the threat of mishap was a planet removed.

Malta, designated by tradition to suffer, and further handicapped by the imposition of having to play two games in the space of four days against fresh opposition, were simply overwhelmed. In the end, a five-goal margin accurately reflected the discrepancy in standard between the teams and, if it fell some way short of the achievement of Eoin Hand's team back in 1983, it still represented a fine performance.

Decorating it all, of course, was the contribution of Robbie Keane, just three months past his 18th birthday, but already a cult figure for the crowd. For some time now, Lansdowne Road and Old Trafford, among other arenas, have resounded to a familiar war cry.

But this time, the chants of Keano, Keano, were not for the Manchester United captain but for his younger namesake, directly in front of him, who lit up the game.

Against the streetwise defenders of Croatia last month, his delicate skills and perceptive running yielded little. Now, in the more comfortable setting of last night's game, he was provided with a stage to give full expression to his talent. And just two minutes after his first goal, he was celebrating on the double.

This time there was no element of chance about his score when he pushed nimbly through David Carabott and, as the centre defenders backed off the tackle, he looked up just long enough to pick his spot and bend the ball past goalkeeper Reggi Cini.

In those fleeting moments of grandeur was identified, yet again, a rare talent, and while bigger, more demanding tests lie ahead, he is already up and running in pursuit of another coveted record, that of Frank Stapleton, Ireland's leading goal-scorer.

To suggest that it was a one-man show would, of course, be grossly misleading. There was, for example, a splendid return to international duty for Niall Quinn, strong and accurate in the air and the perfect foil for the young pretender alongside him.

With better luck, Quinn might have had a hat-trick. Instead, he had to content himself with just one goal after Damien Duff's cross had invited the perfect side-footed finish for Ireland's fourth in the 66th minute.

Sandwiched between the strikers' goals, was a typical Roy Keane effort, a fiercely driven shot from 30 yards. Cini got his body in front of it, but he failed to control it and merely deflected it off his chest and into the roof of the net.

By now the competitive element had all but been drained from the game, and Gary Breen topped it off for the home team when, after Kinsella's shot had been blocked, the central defender cheekily took the ball around Cini before sliding it into an empty net.

Roy Keane, influential as ever in the tackle, was the great driving force for the midfield, and with Kinsella again illustrating his aptitude for this level of football, the traffic was always headed towards the visitors' goal.

McAteer moved much more easily on this occasion, linking well with Jeff Kenna down the right flank, and on the opposite side of midfield, Duff met with considerably more reward than in the meeting with the Croatians.

No less than Robbie Keane, he is gradually coming to terms with the demands of senior football, and if his resources in tracking back were seldom put to the test on this occasion, he too could feel well satisfied with his contribution.

Breen, back in the team as a replacement for Phil Babb, has known tougher games on the training ground, but the manner in which he took his goal, his third in international football, will have done much for his confidence.

For all their undoubted spirit, Malta were little better than a rabble, lacking discipline at the back and bankrupt enough in midfield to suggest that had they stayed on the pitch another hour, they still may not have scored.

Paramount to their hopes of survival was the need to keep their net intact during the opening the opening half hour, but with Robbie Keane's first goal, the roof fell in around them and escape was rendered impossible.

The battle lines for a mismatch were established within six minutes of the kick-off. At that point, Shay Given was the only player in the top third of the pitch, a mere onlooker to the frenetic action away in the distance.

Robbie Keane, with eyes already trained on Giles's old record, mis-timed the header off Jason McAteer's cross, and when Quinn's judgment was likewise flawed a couple of minutes later, we wondered aloud if it was going to be another of those nights.

In the event, Keane's brace settled the nerves of the crowd and set the scene for a night of carnival in which the hapless Maltese were the only non-participants.

Quinn, catching the mood of it all on a rare appearance in the green, delighted the crowd with sleight of foot, only to see Cini make a brilliant, point-blank save.

That is a facet of the big man's game which has frequently been overlooked, and twice in the minutes approaching half time he came close to scoring. First he curled a shot from the edge of the penalty area, and then Robbie Keane deprived him of what looked a certain score by delaying the pass in front of an open goal.

In the event, it mattered little, for with the sap leaving the legs of the Maltese by the minute, Ireland were in full control and on their way, hopefully, to Belgrade with a maximum six points from their two games.

Republic Of Ireland: Given (Newcastle), Kenna (Blackburn), Staunton (Liverpool), Breen (Coventry), Cunningham (Wimbledon), Roy Keane (Manchester Utd), McAteer (Liverpool - Carsley Derby 84), Kinsella (Charlton), Quinn (Sunderland - Cascarino Nancy 74), Robbie Keane (Wolves - Kennedy Wimbledon 83), Duff (Blackburn). Subs Not Used: McLoughlin (Portsmouth), Harte (Leeds), Carr (Tottenham), Kiely (Bury). Goals: Robbie Keane 16, 18, Roy Keane 54, Quinn 63, Breen 82.

Malta: Cini, Sixsmith (Camilleri 77), Chetcuti, Spiteri, Debono, Buttigieg, Turner, Carabott, Suda (Aguis 66), Brincat, Zahra (Zammit 70). Subs Not Used: Magri, Saiv, Bencini, Barry. Attendance: 34,500.

Referee: R Olsen (Norway).