Malta 0 Republic of Ireland 1
It was a night for coats and umbrellas at the Ta’ Qali Stadium in Malta on an evening Ireland came away with the minimum they would have expected from this international friendly against a team ranked 119 places below them in the Fifa rankings.
Callum Robinson seized on a mistake in the Maltese defence in the 55th minute, with the home side fluffing their attempts to play the ball out of trouble and gifting Ireland the game’s only goal.
It was a strike celebrated with relief more than joy by Stephen Kenny, who can take some solace that Ireland’s year at least finished with a win. But this was not a performance that will have done much to convince the doubters his team are capable of uprooting a giant sequoia of the game when the Euro 2024 qualification campaign begins next March against France.
The travelling Irish contingent of over 700 gave the team a rousing send-off after the game but it doesn’t erase the fact the half-time whistle was greeted by some boos and heckles.
The match-winning goal was gift-wrapped by a Maltese defence that had looked uncomfortable all evening playing the ball around the back, and yet they continued to do so.
Robinson punished them by seizing on an underhit back-pass from Malta captain Matthew Guillaumier to his goalkeeper Henry Bonello. Robinson beat Bonello to the ball before sliding it home to an empty goal, a weight immediately dropping off Kenny’s shoulders, the Ireland manager spinning around in celebration, his two hands waving in the air as if he was trying to take off.
If Kenny can be thankful to Guillaumier for creating the goal chance, then he should be just as grateful to referee Chrysovalantis Theouli for not awarding Malta a penalty just seconds after Robinson’s goal.
James McClean appeared to handle a cross by Joseph Mbong and certainly the home players and fans at the Ta’ Qali Stadium felt it was a penalty, but Theouli waved their claims away.
The introduction of Callum O’Dowda late on injected energy to Ireland’s display and he smacked the post with a well-hit shot in the closing minutes. Kenny gave Mark Sykes his international debut late on while Evan Ferguson was also afforded more game time after making his bow last Thursday against Norway.
But overall, there was little Ireland can take away from Malta apart from the fact they won.
Kenny made five changes to his starting team from the Norway game, with Caoimhín Kelleher, Séamus Coleman, McClean, Jamie McGrath and Chiedozie Ogbene coming in. Gavin Bazunu, Dara O’Shea, Jayson Molumby, Callum O’Dowda and Michael Obafemi all dropped out. Obafemi was not listed among the subs either, with the Swansea man ruled out because of a hamstring injury.
Kenny again went for his now preferred system with three at the back, here it was John Egan, Nathan Collins and Coleman, the team captain.
McClean, picking up his 96th cap, started on the left of a midfield five and he was one of Ireland’s busiest players in the opening exchanges. Malta’s tactic of trying to pass the ball out from restarts was seized upon by Ireland, who pushed up with a high squeeze that unsettled the home side.
McClean forced an early corner from one such press and soon after he won a free on the edge of the box as Ireland tried to force an early goal. However, the best chance of the early chances fell to Malta after a quick break caught the Ireland rearguard all at sea in the 12th minute. With Collins out of position, and scampering back, Maltese striker Jodi Jones had time and space, but his shot was weakly struck and Kelleher was able to save comfortably.
Mbong curled a shot over Kelleher’s crossbar soon after but in what was an otherwise forgettable opening 45 minutes, Ireland’s best chance arrived just before the break.
Matt Doherty took possession inside the box and neatly nutmegged Ryan Camenzuli, threading the ball towards Alan Browne. The Preston man got a touch on the ball ahead of the outrushing goalkeeper but couldn’t steer the ball inside the posts.
The tempo didn’t increase to any great degree on the resumption, but Josh Cullen did win a free on the edge of the box for Ireland, though McGrath’s smacked the resulting effort off the Maltese wall.
The breakthrough goal arrived soon after and it would prove to be enough. Or, rather, it would have to be enough.
The strains of Qué Será, Será could be heard as the Ireland players walked off the pitch, the fans seemingly persuaded they were indeed going to Germany.
Still, prior to kick-off, the big screen at the stadium was showing the Qatar v Ecuador game live from Doha. Another reminder, as if any was needed, of the big show happening over there while Ireland are over here. Plodding along. Grafting out 1-0 wins in Malta. The road to Germany doesn’t look any shorter after this.
Whatever will be, will be.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Kelleher (Liverpool); Coleman (Everton), Egan (Sheffield United), Collins (Wolverhampton Wanderers); Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Browne (Preston North End), Cullen (Burnley), McGrath (Dundee United), McClean (Wigan Athletic); Robinson (Cardiff City), Ogbene (Rotherham United)
Subs: O’Dowda (Cardiff City) for McClean, Hendrick (Reading) for Browne (both 66 mins); Ferguson (Brighton & Hove Albion) for Ogbene (77); Sykes (Bristol City) for Robinson (85).
MALTA: Bonello (Hamrun Spartans); APAP (Hibernians), Pepe (Birkirkara), Borg (Valletta); Mbong (Kiryat Shmona), Guillaumier (Hamrun Spartans), Kristensen (Hibernians), Teuma (Union SG), Camenzuli (Hamrun Spartans); Satariano (Balzan), Jones (Oxford United).
Subs: Vella (Hibernians) for Kristensen (20 mins); Pisani (Gzira United) for Vella (53); Gambin (Sutton United) for Jones (66); Montebello (Hamrun Spartans) for Satariano, Shaw (Hibernians) for APAP (both 73); Nwoko (Floriana) for Teuma (88).
Referee: Chrysovalantis Theouli (Cyp).