Ireland 1 By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — The talking is almost over as Ireland counts down the days to the start of the soccer World Cup a week from Friday. Manager Mick McCarthy and his players finished off their preparations at home with a 2-1 loss to Nigeria at Lansdowne Road last Thursday, and are now acclimatizing on the island of Saipan in the Pacific Ocean.
Losing to an impressive Nigeria side — a first defeat in Dublin for two years — didn’t trouble McCarthy overly. His main concern was to find a replacement for Mark Kennedy, who had to withdraw from the squad due to injury, and the player called up made an immediate impression.
Millwall’s Steven Reid came on as substitute against the Nigerians and scored an excellent second-half goal, which went a long way to justify his late inclusion. In fact, so impressive was Reid that he probably should have been included in the 23 ahead of Kennedy.
However, McCarthy was disappointed at the number of missed chances that cost the Irish their recent unbeaten record.
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“If you have 21 attempts on goal, then I’d like to think we would do a lot better,” he said. “But I hope we get 21 attempts during the World Cup, but I doubt it.”
The game against Nigeria had been preceded by a testimonial match for Niall Quinn in which an Ireland side took on Quinn’s club Sunderland. Although scheduled to play, team captain Roy Keane failed to appear, fueling more debate about his relations with McCarthy.
Initially, it seems McCarthy had been informed by Keane’s club, Manchester United, that he was having treatment for a hip problem, but it then emerged that the player had gone to France for physical therapy. In the end, Keane played against Nigeria and flew out to Saipan with the rest of the squad.
The lineup against the Africans was a strong indication of the team that McCarthy will select for the opening game of the finals, against Cameroon in Niigata, Japan, a week from Saturday. Shay Given was in goal, with a defensive line of Ian Harte, Kenny Cunningham, Steve Staunton and Steve Finnan. Significantly, Matt Holland was preferred to Mark Kinsella as Keane’s midfield partner, with Kevin Kilbane and Jason McAteer on the wings behind the two strikers Damien Duff and Robbie Keane.
Currently, McAteer, who has an ankle injury, is the only worry in advance of the Cameroon game. The Irish have a practice match in Hiroshima against a local club on Saturday before the tournament kicks off. Apart from Cameroon, Ireland’s other opponents in Group E are Germany and Saudi Arabia, with two teams to qualify for the last 16.