The result created a mammoth six-point gap between Ireland and the number two spot in Group 10; a spot that may now be their best chance of qualification should they finish runners-up and reach the playoffs.
Russia (2-0, 6 points) now occupy that position going into the long break before the qualifiers resume next March. They trail Switzerland, whose stunning 2-1 win at Lansdowne Road left Ireland nursing their second consecutive defeat, by one point. The Republic are fourth, winless and without a point.
Like in Moscow last month when they dismantled the suddenly out of sorts Irish World Cup heroes 4-2, Russia were in commanding form against unpredictable Albania.
It took less than three minutes for Alexander Kerzhakov to put Russia ahead, and after Klodian Duro (11th) had equalized, a three-goal 12-minute blitz finished off the Albanians. Sergei Semak (41st, 53rd) and Viktor Onopko scored during the barrage.
With or without McCarthy, a four-day span next spring will decide Ireland’s fate. That is when the Republic visit Georgia on March 29 and Albania on April 2.
Northern Ireland picked up their first point in Group 6 after frustrating Ukraine in a goalless match at Windsor Park in Belfast.
Missing Gerry Taggart, Danny Griffin, Mark Williams and Peter Kennedy in defense, coach Sammy McIlroy shuffled his lineup, pulling midfielders Steve Lomas and Kevin Horlock behind to fill some of the gaps and coming away with a respectable result four days after the 3-0 rout by Spain in Albacete.
The North even had a chance to clinch it in the second half when Michael Hughes was put through. But he hesitated and gave up a good shot before his pass to Damien Johnson was cleared.
“I would have loved to have got something out of the game and to do that you need to score. But everyone can see we haven’t got someone to get the goals at the moment,” McIlroy said later.
“Michael Hughes perhaps should have done better when he had a chance, but he was caught in two minds. That could be due to the fact that he hasn’t played this season.”
Northern Ireland meet fellow bottom side Armenia when the Group 6 hostilities resume next March.
Demis Nikolaidis (2nd, 60th) secured Greece (3), a 2-0 win over Armenia in Athens last Wednesday.
Spain (6) lead Ukraine by a point in Group 6.
Young Tottenham forward Simon Davies (12th) and Newcastle United’s Craig Bellamy (71st) sparked Wales to an historic 2-1 victory over wounded Italy in Cardiff that took the Welsh Dragons to the top in Group 9 (2-0, 6).
The Azzurri were always a step slower than Mark Hughes’ inspired charges, despite pulling level at one point through Alessandro Del Piero (32nd).
Even with several injured players out, notably forwards Christian Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi, the loss before a capacity 72,000 Millennium Stadium left Italian boss Giovanni Trapattoni on the endangered managers’ list.
Undefeated in 13 months, the Welsh can take another big step toward qualifying for Euro ’04 if they win on the road against Azerbaijan on Nov. 20.
Italy drop to third position in Group 9, with four points from three games.
Yugoslavia, who like Wales have a game in hand to the Azzurri, beat Finland 2-0 in Belgrade to take second place (4) on goal difference. Darko Kovacevic (55th) and Sinisa Mihajlovic (85th penalty) scored.
A David Seaman howler set the tone for England’s patchy 2-2 with unfancied Macedonia at Southampton that left Turkey in the driving seat in Group 7.
The aging goalie, whose World Cup blunder cost England dearly in the 2-1 quarterfinal loss to Brazil, allowed Artim Sakiri’s 11th-minute corner to sail over him and into the net for Macedonia’s opener.
Skipper David Beckham leveled three minutes later but Vance Trajanov (25th) pounced on a poor clearance by Sol Campbell to lift Macedonia again before Steven Gerrard (36th) struck the equalizer.
Seaman’s error left his future in serious doubt and Turkey (3-0, 9) licking their chops at the top of the group after a 5-0 pasting of little Liechtenstein in Istanbul.
Okan Buruk (7th), Umit Davala (14th), Ilhan Mansiz (23rd), and substitute Serhat Akin (81st, 90th) tallied.
The Turks lead England by five points, albeit Sven-Goran Eriksson’s men have a game in hand.
Thierry Henry (25th, 36th), his Arsenal striking partner Sylvain Wiltord (59th), and Eric Carriere (85th) were on target as Group 1 runaway leaders France (3-0, 9) swamped Malta 4-0 in Valleta to bring their two-match goal tally in the Euro qualifiers to nine.
The Cup holders had four days earlier destroyed Slovenia 5-0 in Paris. Slovenia share second place with Israel on the three-point mark.
World Cup hero Miroslav Klose (58th) clinched a narrow victory for Germany in a surprisingly close match with fiery Group 5 underdogs the Faroe Islands in Hanover.
Michael Ballack’s second minute penalty had promised a rout but the Islanders had other plans, forcing a Manuel Friedrich own goal (45th) and hitting a post before Klose’s diving header rescued the Japan/Korea ’02 losing finalists.
Still, the win was enough for Germany (2-0, 6) to regain the leadership from Scotland (4).
Also in Group 5, Chelsea’s Eidur Gudjohnsen (60th, 74th) had a brace in third-placed Iceland’s 3-0 romp over Lithuania in Reykjavik. Heidar Helguson (50th) was the other scorer.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Clarence Seedorf (16th), Philip Cocu (19th) and Roy Makaay (30th) connected for Holland in a 3-0 drubbing of Austria in Vienna for the Group 3 pace setters (2-0, 6).
The Dutch lead both Austria and the Czech Republic, 2-0 victors over Belarus in Teplice, on goal difference.
Young Liverpool forward Milan Baros, who’s 20, set up Karel Poborsky (7th) for the opener and then bagged one himself (23rd) in the Czech result.
Romania thrashed Luxembourg 7-0 in Group 2 behind Cosmin Contra’s hat trick (45th, 47th, 86th) and contributions by Dinu Viorel Moldovan (1st, 4th), Mirel Radoi (23rd), and Thiberiu Ghioane (80th).
Norway (7) stayed a point ahead of Romania with a 2-0 decision over Bosnia in Oslo. Claus Lundekvam (6th) and John Arne Riise (27th) netted. Lundekvam’s effort was Norway’s 1,000th goal since the nation’s first international fixture, an 11-3 loss to Sweden in 1908.
In Sofia, Bulgaria edged Andorra 2-1 to maintain their one hundred percent record in Group 8 after three games.
Georgi Chilikov (37th) and skipper Krassimir Balakov (58th) struck, while Tony Lima (81st) had Andorra’s reply.
Second-placed Belgium (8) had Wesley Sonck’s first-minute strike to thank for a 1-0 win over Estonia in Tallinn.
Elsewhere in the qualifiers, substitute Zoltan Gera’s hat trick (49th, 62nd, 88th) in Budapest earned Hungary a 3-0 win over San Marino and a share of the Group 4 leadership with Latvia. Both have four points.