By Jay Mwamba
The performance was what Irish fans have often come to expect from their national side under Mick McCarthy’s tutelage — plucky, relentless, and with sufficient technical know-how to repeatedly trouble the German defense.
But in the end, it took a bit of exquisite finishing deep in injury time from one of the youngest players in the World Cup finals to earn Ireland a deserved 1-1 tie with the three-time champions in their second Group E match in Ibaraki, Japan, last Wednesday.
Set up up by a Niall Quinn flick, the goal opened Robbie Keane’s account in the finals and canceled out the phenomenal Miroslav Klose’s 19th-minute icebreaker for the Germans.
More important, the one point from the tie kept Ireland in the hunt in what, as expected, was developing into a neck-and-neck three-horse race for the two top places in the group.
It also offered further proof that the Republic can still be competitive against top-flight opposition without Roy Keane, while continuing the vindication of coach McCarthy for kicking the rebellious Keane off the team before the start of the tournament.
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“I thought we deserved something out of it,” McCarthy said. “I thought we gave them a good doing, to be honest, and if we’d come off losing 1-0, I’d have been gutted.”
The increasingly emboldened manager gave another rousing dressing room speech at the interval that fired up his charges as they trailed 1-0.
“I said to them at halftime, ‘Don’t come off here beating them at football and lose — come off having got a result,’ ” he said, adding, “We had to take our chance. What’s the point in coming out here and going out without a fight?”
German coach Rudi Voeller would later admit that the pluck of the Irish had thrown his game plan into disarray. He also conceded that his players were already dreaming of the next round before the job was done.
“That’s what makes it all the more bitter for us,” Voeller said. “We never really freed ourselves from the pressure they applied on us. [Ireland] getting the goal was inevitable, I guess.”
With most of the 35,854 fans behind them and refrains of “OLE! OLE! OLE!” punctuating the night, the Kashima Soccer Stadium had a strong Lansdowne Road feel to it. And so did Ireland’s effort.
The Republic, with just one change from the side that had fought back four days earlier in Niigata to hold Cameroon to a 1-1 draw, proved more than worthy opponents for the high scoring Germans.
Voeller had kept faith with the side that had demolished Saudi Arabia 8-0 in Sapporo in their opener, hoping for another goalfest.
Ireland, however, had other plans. They held their own against the Teutons with Damien Duff’s ceaseless running upfront. Gary Kelly, Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, and Mark Kinsella also came up big as they battled Voeller’s highly touted linkmen Christian Ziege, Dietmar Hamann, Michael Ballack, and Bernd Schneider to a standstill in the middle of the park. And the Steve Staunton-marshaled defense was vigilant against the sharpshooting German strikers.
The backline’s one fatal lapse occurred in the 19th minute when Ballack delivered a fine ball from the right that Klose nodded past the exposed Shay Given with Ian Harte hot on his heels.
The goal brought the young Polish-born forward’s two-match tally to four following his hat trick of headers against the woeful Saudis.
It also came against the run of play. Twice earlier, Duff had caused panic in the German defense forcing hasty clearances in the box on both occasions.
Popping up all over the field in the attacking third, Duff beat the off side trap in the 20th minute in pursuit of a long Keane pass, but lost a foot race for the ball with Germany’s world-rated goalie Oliver Kahn.
Four minutes later, Gary Breen fired a rebound inches past the far post.
Keane, too, had a chance before the interval (44th) when a defender failed to clear a Kevin Kilbane cross in the 6-yard box. The Leeds United forward fluffed a bicycle kick with only Kahn between him and the net.
The match picked up on the same tempo after the break, with Ireland still pressing for an equalizer. It nearly came in the 56th minute following another excellent build up.
Steve Finnan, starting for the injured Jason McAteer, floated a long ball to Kilbane who nodded it into the box. Duff latched onto it and shot from 6 yards but the ball came off the advancing Kahn and span out for a corner.
There was a heart-stopping moment for the Republic (67th) when a rare breakdown at the back left Carsten Jancker unmarked. The big striker took a pass from Ballack, run unchallenged into the box and lobbed the ball over the onrushing Given.
To much Irish relief, the ball bounced past the upright and out for a goalkick.
As the minutes ticked away, it seemed as though Germany would weather the Irish pressure.
Searching for a spark, McCarthy sent on Quinn and Stephen Reid for Gary Kelly and his nephew, Ian Harte, respectively.
Kahn’s brave save at the feet of Keane (82nd) appeared to have been Ireland’s last roll of the dice before regulation time expired and three minutes of stoppage time was added on.
Then came a long cross from Kilbane in the Irish half (92nd). It found Quinn, all 6-foot-4 of him, on the edge of the box and he flicked it into the path of Keane’s well-timed run between two defenders.
Keane evaded Carsten Ramelow’s desperate lunge and shot past Kahn from point-blank range to salvage a life-saving point for the Republic.
Skipper Staunton led the Irish celebrations at the final whistle. It was a historic night for the 33-year-old, who won an Irish record 100th international cap before giving way to Kenny Cunningham in the 88th minute.
Said full back Kelly: “It was typical of the fighting Irish: We were fighting 11 Germans and the referee but we knuckled in and we just kept going. It’s never over until the final whistle and we [were] over the moon.”
Ireland: Shay Given, Steve Finnan, Ian Harte (Stephen Reid 73), Steve Staunton (Kenny Cunningham 88), Gary Breen, Gary Kelly (Niall Quinn 73), Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, Mark Kinsella, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane.
Germany: Oliver Kahn, Thomas Linke, Christoph Metzelder, Carsten Ramelow, Christian Ziege, Dietmar Hamann, Michael Ballack, Bernd Schneider (Jens Jeremies 90), Torsten Frings, Carsten Jancker (Oliver Bierhoff 75), Miroslav Klose (Marco Bode 85).