By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — The Republic of Ireland were entitled not to feel down in the aftermath of last week’s 1-0 European championship qualifying loss to Yugoslavia in Belgrade. They had performed well, had competed well and for long periods looked easily good enough to earn a draw. But then disaster struck.
For some reason, teams under manager Mick McCarthy have been prone to crucial defensive lapses and, in the final analysis, last Wednesday’s Belgrade experience was no different.
The breakdown occurred on a bread-and-butter cross from the left wing. First there was Gary Breen’s woefully mistimed attempted header and then a fatal moment’s hesitation by Steve Staunton. Pedrag Mijatovic needed no second invitation and his drive scorched past Shay Given in the Irish goal.
To their credit, Mark Kinsella, Damien Duff and substitute Keith O’Neill never stopped pushing forward in the last quarter, but there was no escaping the fact that the mistake had killed Irish chances. Jason McAteer was unlucky not to have been awarded a penalty when he was brought down by the Yugoslav goalkeeper, but by then it had turned into another night of frustration away from Lansdowne Road.
Despite a truly stunning display by Roy Keane — is there a better defensive midfielder in world soccer right now? — and some genuine graft by Kinsella, Denis Irwin, Kenny Cunningham and Breen, Ireland clearly squandered an opportunity.
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However ambitious it might have been to expect a draw against the highly rated Yugoslavs, a 0-0 result would have put McCarthy and his players in strong position to qualify from what is a hellish group.
With only one country to automatically qualify for the 2000 finals and matches remaining against Croatia (away), Yugoslavia (home), Macedonia (home and away) and Malta (away), a share of the points last week would have been ideal.
"I expected a hard game and you should appreciate how well we played," McCarthy said. "I was delighted with the performance, but, yes, in the end, we lost."
While Breen has shown some improvement, he remains a defender who suffers from the occasional lack of concentration and his central defensive partnership with Cunningham is a cause for concern.
More worryingly, the normally reliable Staunton is struggling at the moment. Apart from his glaring error, the Yugoslavs constantly threatened down Ireland’s left side, where Staunton’s lack of pace was ruthlessly exposed.
By the time the fraught qualifying process resumes next spring, Ian Harte and Gary Kelly will be challenging hard for the left back position. And when it’s all over, McCarthy will be hoping that he’s not left to rue that one major mistake in Belgrade.