By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — The Republic of Ireland’s chances of qualifying for the European soccer championship finals in 2000 had skyrocketed last week on the back of an impressive 2-1 victory Wednesday over Yugoslavia. But just when the future looked so bright, the Irish lost their advantage with a devastating 1-0 loss by Croatia.
Everything had appeared to be on track last Saturday in Zagreb until the fourth minute of injury time, when Croatia’s dangerman Davor Suker slipped in behind the defense to toe-poke home the winning goal. Ireland had been under the most severe pressure. However, the draw that was manager Mick McCarthy’s
obvious target appeared to be well within the team’s grasp until the agony of Suker’s late strike.
While a draw would have almost certainly booked the Irish an automatic place in next year’s finals, all is far from lost despite the bitter disappointment of events in Zagreb. Ireland take on Malta in Valletta today in the third leg of an energy-sapping week and another win over the lowly Maltese, followed by a draw away to Macedonia in the last group match next month, should be good enough to earn a playoff at least.
Yugoslavia, who are up against Macedonia in Skopje today, are now favorites to secure one of the automatic qualifying places, with Ireland and Croatia battling it out for that playoff spot.
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McCarthy’s search for precious points had started in brilliant fashion last Wednesday at Lansdowne Road, where goals by Robbie Keane and Mark Kennedy saw off the challenge of Yugoslavia.
It was arguably the best performance in the McCarthy era, with typical aggressive defense backed up by skillful passing. In fact, it was probably the night when McCarthy finally shed the "Son of Jack Charlton" tag that had hung around his neck for so long.
There was Charlton-style sheer will and determination, but this time McCarthy’s youngsters added class, movement and pace to the mix. Robbie Keane drove home the first goal after a Niall Quinn assist, and although an error by Steve Staunton allowed the Yugoslavs in for an equalizer, Kennedy stepped up to fire in a stunning shot for the winner.
Roy Keane and Mark Kinsella were outstanding in the middle of the pitch and McCarthy’s progressive decision to play with two wingers in Kevin Kilbane and Kennedy paid off richly.
There was, however, a downside to the euphoria when it emerged that both Roy Keane and Denis Irwin would both miss Saturday’s game against Croatia through injury and then Robbie Keane was put on the doubtful list with a back problem.
If McCarthy’s hand was forced to an extent, he surprised many observers by making as many as six changes for Zagreb. Stephen Carr took Irwin’s place at fullback, and Lee Carsley, Alan McLoughlin, Gary Kelly and Damien Duff all came into a defensive midfield, with Tony Cascarino deployed as the lone striker.
"It’s impossible to play three games in eight days with the sort of
intensity we showed against Yugoslavia," rationalized McCarthy. "We’ll need pace and fresh legs against Malta. This is a different proposition."
When Suker scored the dramatic winning goal in the 94th minute — "Where did the referee get five minutes of injury time from?" fumed McCarthy — the defensive selection left the manager open to the charge that he had sacrificed the chance of beating a vulnerable Croatian side.
"The tactics handed the initiative to Croatia in the opening minutes and from then on, only one team could win the game," was former Republic international Mark Lawrenson’s view. Now a highly respected analyst, Lawrenson said he felt that McCarthy’s strategy was overly conservative.
"The only way you take a point from a game like this one is by at least maintaining some sort of threat that you are capable of grabbing all three points," he said. "Last Saturday we never threatened to do that because of the way we opted to play.
"Playing Tony Cascarino up front by himself against a team of Croatia’s quality was little short of laughable. If you are going to play with one up, then he must have pace and mobility. Overall there just seemed to be an acceptance that anything better than a defeat would be a tremendous bonus."
Yugoslavia’s 3-1 success against Macedonia the day after Ireland’s defeat in Zagreb didn’t help the mood as McCarthy and his players traveled to Malta. Robbie Keane is certain to start today alongside Quinn, while Kennedy and Kilbane could also return on the flanks.
It has been a rollercoaster few days so far for the team and its manager. Only a win will do against Malta, who have lost all seven of their qualifying games. Anything less and Ireland can all but kiss their chances of Euro 2000 goodbye.