Even then, it took two superb saves by the goalkeeper Alan Kelly to prevent the bottom team in Group Eight, who had never previously scored against the Irish in 16 meetings, hitting back in the time that remained. Steve Carr and Gary Breen also had to make desperate, last-ditch, interceptions to tidy up in a defence that was in danger of collapse long before the end.
The Irish, having impressed in beating Yugoslavia 2-1 a week ago in Dublin before narrowly failing to hold Croatia in Zagreb last Saturday, looked like making their third qualifier in eight days a stroll when Robbie Keane fired in Niall Quinn's pass in the 13th minute and an unmarked Breen headed the second from Kevin Kilbane's cross seven minutes later.
But Mick McCarthy's team, who need to win their last qualifier next month in Macedonia to guarantee at least a play-off chance, spurned opportunities to add to their lead before the half-time break and then lost all their discipline in the second half.
The Maltese full-back Brian Said lobbed the ball over Kelly after some awful defending in the 62nd minute. Seven minutes later David Carabott converted a penalty after Kenny Cunningham had pulled down Daniel Thuma.
Carmel Busuttil's shot hit scraped the bar five minutes after the equaliser, but the Irish hung on and Staunton saved their blushes when Quinn was fouled 25 yards out and the Liverpool veteran rifled in the resulting free-kick.
Kelly, who had produced two masterly saves from Gilbert Agius and Busuttil in the first-half, had to make one more before the finish, keeping out Busuttil's thundering drive before Carabott missed the far post by inches with a 25-yard drive in stoppage time.
McCarthy said: "Lady Luck was against us when we lost in the 93rd minute in Croatia on Saturday but today I think she came on and played midfield for us in the second half. I've got to look at the video tape to see what went wrong with our defending in the second half. A lot of it was psychological as well as tiredness."
MALTA: Barry (Sliema Wanderers), Said (Floriana), Chetcuti (Valletta), Carabott (Hibernians), Debono (Valletta), Buttigieg (Floriana), Busuttil (Sliema Wanderers), Saliba (Valletta), Nwoko (Birkirkara), Camilleri (Sliema Wanderers), Agius (Valletta). Substitutes: Buhagiar (Floriana) for Chetcuti, 23; Vella (Hibernians) for Buttigieg, 29, Thuma (Pieta Hotspurs) for Agius, 57.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: A Kelly (Blackburn), Carr (Tottenham), Staunton (Liverpool), Breen (Coventry), Cunningham (Wimbledon), Carsley (Blackburn), Kilbane (West Bromwich), Kinsella (Charlton), Quinn (Sunderland), Robbie Keane (Coventry), Kennedy (Manchester City). Substitutes: McLoughlin (Portsmouth) for Kennedy, 54, Duff (Blackburn) for Kilbane, 65, Harte (Leeds) for Breen, 75.
Referee: S Capodban (Romania).Reuse content