By Mark Jones
DUBLIN – The Republic of Ireland’s quest for a place in the 2002 soccer World Cup finals couldn’t have a more demanding start. On Saturday, manager Mick McCarthy and his players face Holland in Amsterdam and even if the Dutch failed to make the required impact at last summer’s Euro 2000 — losing to Italy in the semifinal — they are still a major force.
As for the Irish, there has already been some good news in that captain Roy Keane will be fit. The midfielder was troubled by a back injury during Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with West Ham last Saturday, but was cleared to play following a visit to hospital.
However, central defender Kenny Cunningham has already been ruled out, so McCarthy may have to gamble on Phil Babb as a replacement. The out-of-form Babb, who recently moved to Sporting Lisbon in Portugal, is expected to line up alongside Gary Breen, Ian Harte and Stephen Carr in Ireland’s back four.
How that defense copes with Patrick Kluivert could decide the game — at least the Irish won’t have to deal with Dennis Bergkamp, who has retired from international soccer, while both Boudewijn Zenden and Jaap Stamp will miss the game because of injury and Edgar Davids has been left out of the squad.
The Dutch have also had a change of manager since Euro 2000, with Frank Rijkaard having been replaced by Louis van Gaal, but there will hardly be any great unstability as Van Gaal is familiar with many of the players from his time in charge of Barcelona.
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There is some temptation for McCarthy to play Niall Quinn as a lone striker, pack the midfield and angle for a draw, but that would mean leaving Robbie Keane on the bench. Since joining Inter Milan four weeks ago, Keane has been in sharp form and his omission would be a mistake.
Equally, McCarthy cannot afford to make the sort of tactical blunders that marred the Euro 2000 qualifying campaign. With an away game against the highly rated Portuguese on Oct. 7, there is the realistic prospect of the Irish winding up with no points after the first two matches.
Cyprus, Estonia and Andorra — the other countries in Ireland’s group — don’t represent the same threat, but wins will still be hard to come by between now and the final contest in October of next year. A draw in Amsterdam on Saturday would be an excellent start.