By Damian Spellman, PA
Stephen Kenny admitted the Republic of Ireland have played better and lost after seeing them grind out a narrow friendly victory over European minnows Malta.
Callum Robinson’s 55th-minute strike proved to be the only goal at the Ta’ Qali National Stadium as Ireland once again came up against a massed defence and struggled to break it down, just as they had done in defeat by Norway in Dublin on Thursday evening.
However, after witnessing 2-1 defeats by Scotland and the Norwegians either side of a 3-2 victory over Armenia in which they conceded twice in three minutes, Kenny was pleased with both the victory and a shut-out.
He said: “It was important to keep a clean sheet tonight. No game in international football, particularly away from home, is easy to win.
“Malta have got some decent results recently, there’s a little bit of a resurgence there.
“There’s no doubt the match itself wasn’t a classic, far from it. We’re pleased that we got a clean sheet and there were some good aspects to it, but we’ve played a lot better and lost, if you know what I mean.”
Malta, ranked 168th by FIFA, welcomed Ireland having won three of their last five games – against San Marino, Kuwait and Israel – and drawn with Greece, one of the Republic’s Euro 2024 group rivals, on Thursday evening.
Keeper Caoimhin Kelleher had to save from Jodi Jones before the break and Steven Pisani after it, but chances were few and far between for the visitors too until Robinson intercepted Matthew Guillaumier’s weak back-pass and rounded keeper Henry Bonello to secure an eighth win in eight attempts against the Maltese, with substitute Callum O’Dowda denied a second by a post late on.
Kenny said: “It was a great effort, I thought he’d scored. It would have been great for him to get that.
“It was good to have that element of competition – we need that because the nature of the games, particularly the Championship, it’s so relentless, you can’t be certain what players will be fit and not fit. You need that element of competition in the squad.”
Kenny will now turn his attention to Euro 2024 qualification and the prospect of dealing with current world champions France in their opening fixture in March with his frontline still a work in progress as Robinson, Michael Obafemi and Chiedozie Ogbene vie for starting berths.
He said: “To be honest, one of the things we learned from the game against Norway, Callum and Michael playing together, they are better as split strikers than twin strikers.
“It’s probably better with Callum playing deeper and Michael threatening the last line as a central striker all of the time. We tried it more in the second half of the game and it worked better.
“Chiedozie excels in space, he’s been a right-winger most of his career. Exploiting space is key, he’s learning about playing against a low block himself as a forward. It requires different attributes.
“He gave it everything, he gave 100 per cent and he’s been brilliant for us since he came in.”