Malta 0 Republic of Ireland 1
STEPHEN Kenny's Ireland concluded the year on a positive note as they defeated Malta 1-0 at the National Stadium, Ta' Qali on Sunday night, but it was far from convincing.
Callum Robinson’s fortunate goal in the second half - coupled with a clean sheet from Cork’s Caoimhín Kelleher - was enough to earn Ireland a much-needed victory with France to come next in the group stages of the 2024 European Championship qualifiers.
All four Leesiders that were named in the squad started this game as manager Stephen Kenny made five changes from the side that was beaten 2-1 by Norway in a friendly at the Aviva Stadium last Thursday. Browne’s superb finish on the half-volley was the biggest positive from that disappointing night for Kenny’s men and it would see the former Ringmahon Rangers man take over as the country’s top goalscorer for 2022 with three goals.
Ireland has won all seven of their previous internationals against Malta by an aggregate 24-2 score and the hope amongst the huge away following, which wasn’t far off matching the numbers in the home crowd, was that the trend would continue.
But if people thought the first-half performance was bad against the Norwegians, then this was arguably worse.
Malta currently lies 168th in the FIFA World rankings - 119 placed behind Ireland - although they have shown improvement in recent times, culminating in losing just one of their five friendlies this year.
They have also avoided defeat in their last two fixtures, including a 2-2 draw with Ireland’s Euro qualification group opponents’ Greece at this venue three days earlier, and they set up in a 5-3-2 formation which nullified the Irish threat in the first 45.
The Boys in Green failed to have a shot on target - Malta having just one which Kelleher dealt with comfortably - in that time and their only meaningful goal-scoring opportunity fell to Browne before the half time break.
The Irish fans had just concluded their chorus of “let’s pretend we scored a goal” when they almost had a real finish to celebrate but the Preston North End midfielder rolled Matt Doherty’s clever pass inside the box just past the far post.
It seemed like it was going to take a moment of brilliance or a mistake to open the scoring.
In the end, it was latter as the Irish were gifted the lead in the 55th minute when Callum Robinson graciously capitalised on some poor play in the Maltese defence before coolly rolling the ball into the empty net.
That goal sparked the Republic into life and they went close to doubling their lead just past the hour mark but Browne could only send his header from Jamie McGrath’s free-kick straight at the goalkeeper.
But Ireland’s newfound attacking impetus didn’t last long and Kelleher needed to get down low to his left to prevent Stephen Pisani’s hit from creeping into the corner as the match, and the national team’s year, petered out to a tame conclusion although O’Dowda would rattle the post when through on goal late on.
Bonello, Borg, Camenzuli, Apap (Shaw 73), Guillaumler, Mbong, Pepe, Satariano (Montebello 73), Teuma (Nwoko 88), Kristensen (Vella 20 (Pisani 52)), Jones (Gambin 66).
Kelleher, Coleman, Egan, Collins, Doherty, Browne (Hendrick 66), Cullen, McGrath, McClean (O’Dowda 66), Ogbene (Ferguson 77), Robinson (Sykes 86).
Chrysovalantis Theouli (Cyprus).