08.09.1999 at 18:30 Ta'Qali, Valetta
2 - 3
Republic of Ireland
Referee: Sorin Capodban (Romania)
European Cup Qualifier-match
Alan Kelly Jnr
Wednesday, September 8, 1999
A nervous performance in the Ta'Qali - and Malta score their first-ever goals against us
A night of frayed nerves for Ireland in the Ta’Qali National Stadium where sticky palms were not totally explained by the heat and humidity of a game that kicked-off in 30 degrees C.
It needed a magnificent goal from a free by inspirational captain Steve Staunton 17 minutes from time to give Ireland a precious three points from a vigorous Malta and keep European qualifying hopes alive.
Ireland were forced to endure long minutes of edgy insecurity as a resurgent Malta grew in strength and ambition after pulling back a two goals deficit in the second half to go close to saving a point.
The closing half-hour was nerve-wracking and fraught with danger for Ireland as Malta threw their first-half inhibitions to the wind and chased further goals with a will.
Malta’s comeback was as dramatic and as deserved as it was invigorating and while Ireland’s spirit and determination saw them rise again to take a winning goal, it was no surprise that Malta were accorded a standing ovation at the final whistle.
The second half of the match was so eventful as to out-shine in entertainment a spectacular fireworks display visible over the walls of the stadium just a mile away which kept an estimated 9,000 fans enthralled during the half-time interval.
The locals in the little town of Naxxar were celebrating a feast-day in honour of the Madonna and their fireworks lit up the darkening sky with the brilliance of another white-hot day in the Mediterranean holiday isle.
But while the opening salvo of the fireworks display was a welcome distraction to the fragmented nature of the football in the scrappy closing minutes of the first half, the memory paled by comparison with the rugged drama of the second half.
It had all seemed so easy for Ireland when they powered into a 2-0 lead with two cracking goals within 20 minutes of the kick-off.
The first was inevitably claimed by the marvellous Robbie Keane whose ebullient form is such that his £6 million transfer fee seems a mereß
bagatelle in the current climate of over-hyped and over-priced players masquerading as superstars.
Keane, still only 19, is the genuine article; full of slick footwork, imaginative running and a capacity to hold his nerve like the true hitman he is.
His goal came after 13 desultory minutes when Gary Breen found Stephen Carr wide on the right near half-way and he drilled a pass through to Keane just outside the penalty box.
Suddenly the action moved into over-drive as Keane threw his body one-way then pulled away from the ball to let it run through to Niall Quinn and looped around his marker to snap up Quinn’s clever deflection. Keane took deliberate aim before he clipped a sweet left-foot shot past goalkeeper Ernest Barry from 12 yards despite some heavy pressure.
Suddenly Ireland looked a class apart and the second goal seemed only to accentuate the gap in standard between the sides Gary Breen rising at the near post to turn a header down and powerfully into the net from Staunton’s speeding cross just seven minutes later.
The news that Yugoslavia had picked up three points in Macedonia seemed inconsequential as Ireland looked comfortable in coping with a Malta challenge that was hindered by the need to replace two defenders who went into the match with doubts about their fitness.
And Ireland made the classical mistake of underestimating Malta as they allowed the pace of their game drop and saw the intensity of their early approach in defence and midfield melt away in the clawing humidity.
Perhaps it was the combined effects of the heat, humidity and the heavy programme of three matches in eight days that caught up with Ireland but there was a noticeable tendency to defend their two goals.
This impression was further accentuated by the withdrawal of Mark Kennedy in favour of a third central midfielder in the person of Alan McLoughlin and the need for Robbie Keane to adopt a deeper role to fill Kennedy’s right-wing position.
How Malta loved that. Suddenly released from the pressure that had kept them pinned in their own half, they drew fresh energy from the space they were accorded to develop a rhythm and a pattern that stretched Ireland’s defence.
Several astute positional changes and the introduction of a strong-running and powerful spearhead in Daniel Theuma after 67 minutes enabled Malta to assume control of the trend of the game and they prospered while Ireland retreated in face of their rising challenge.
An opportunist goal after 62 minutes was the catalyst Malta needed and when Brian Said lobbed goalkeeper Alan Kelly from 18 yards after a deflection had fallen into his path, Ireland grew increasingly more ragged in their work.
Their unease was compounded by Malta’s decision to throw three strikers forward with the lively Nwoko an able companion for substitute Buhagiar and Carabott adding an imaginative element of skill to the right flank.
The penalty that brought them back to equality after 68 minutes added to the panic that was rising like bile in the back of Irish throats as Nwoko fought his way into the penalty box.
Goalkeeper Kelly and two defenders moved to close him down and as all four players tumbled, Theuma thrust his way into the scrum to draw the free.
Carabott stepped up to drill home the penalty and from a position of some strength, Ireland were suddenly faced with the stark realisation that their qualifying hopes were in danger of being wafted away on the gentle breeze that rose off the Mediterranean.
Happily for Ireland the risk to their position provoked the right response and while there were narrow escapes in plenty before the final whistle, Staunton’s exquisite strike was the panacea for Ireland’s second half ills.
The man known as “Stan” to his friends enjoyed a wonderful game, one that revived memories of his glorious past, and he highlighted the well-being that regular matches for Ireland has engendered by beating a capable goalkeeper in Barry from 25 yards.
It was enough ... but only just !
Malta 2 (Said, Carabott pen.)
Republic of Ireland 3 (Robbie Keane, Breen, Staunton)
Ireland: Alan Kelly (Blackburn), Stephen Carr (Tottenham Hotspur), Steve Staunton (Liverpool) capt, Gary Breen (Coventry City), Kenny Cunningham (Wimbledon), Lee Carsley (Blackburn), Kevin Kilbane (West Brom), Mark Kinsella (Charlton Athletic), Niall Quinn (Sunderland), Robbie Keane (Coventry City), Mark Kennedy (Manchester City)
Subs: Ian Harte (Leeds United) for Breen 74, Damien Duff (Blackburn) for Kilbane 65, Alan McLoughlin (Portsmouth) for Kennedy 55
Manager: Mick McCarthy
Malta: Barry, Said, Chetcuti, Carabott, Debono, Buttigieg, Busuttil, Saliba, Nwoko, Camilleri, Aguis
Subs: Buhagiar (24), Vella (30), Theuma(67)
Referee: S Capodban (Romanian)