By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — With just two more build-up games next month before the serious business of the World Cup finals gets under way, Ireland are keeping the winning habit. Last Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over the U.S. at Lansdowne Road might not rank high on the list of memorable home performances, but the game ended on the sort of positive note that manager Mick McCarthy wants to bring to the Far East.
Gary Doherty’s decisive goal came too close to the end for comfort, and if the USA had gone away with a draw, McCarthy and his players would not have been complaining. Following a bright Irish start, which featured a sumptuously created goal by Mark Kinsella, the Americans had dominated for extensive periods.
“I have to have some caution about winning friendlies before the World Cup, but credit to the players, they come in and they show the right attitude,” said McCarthy, who was without the injured Roy Keane, Jason McAteer and Niall Quinn.
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In their absence, there was an opportunity for Robbie Keane to demonstrate his improved form. Criticized by both McCarthy and by his club manager at Leeds, Dave O’Leary, for being overweight, Keane was sharp and incisive last Wednesday and looks to be coming back to his best at exactly the right time for the finals.
There had been some speculation that Mark Kinsella had moved behind Matt Holland in the race to partner Roy Keane in the center of midfield. However, Kinsella put himself back in pole position with an excellent first-half performance. Apart from his goal, superbly finished after a pinpoint Steve Finnan cross, Kinsella was also back to near his best form following injury problems.
With McCarthy soon to announce his 23 players for the finals, there was also good news for midfielder Colin Healy, who now looks likely to force his way into the squad. The Celtic player, currently on loan to Coventry, was given a full 90 minutes and had a particularly impressive second half.
“I thought Colin was excellent,” McCarthy said. “He stamped his authority on the game and had another very good game. He is causing me a problem, but it is a nice problem to have.”
There was also more evidence of Damien Duff’s well being. Although most effective as a left winger, it now seems that Duff will be used as a striker with Robbie Keane, especially as there are continuing doubts over Quinn’s fitness. Given the right opportunities, the highly talented Duff could emerge as one of the top players of the World Cup.
Played in difficult conditions with surface water making one side of the pitch a quagmire, the Irish outpassed the U.S. during the opening phase. Indeed, Kinsella could have had a second goal following Keane’s clever cross, but soon after Shay Given had been forced to make a good save from Clint Mathis’s long-range shot, the visitors drew level.
Central defender Eddie Pope took advantage of some sloppy defending at a corner by Rory Delap to head past Given. Pope was able to take some added satisfaction in that it was the first goal that Ireland had conceded at Lansdowne Road since the game against Croatia last August.
The U.S. had one or two chances to move in front after the interval, but it was substitute Doherty, making his first international appearance six months after breaking his leg, who headed home from Steve Staunton’s free kick.
World Cup squad
Goalkeepers, Shay Given, Dean Kiely, Alan Kelly; defenders, Steve Staunton, Steve Finnan, Kenny Cunningham, Gary Breen, Richard Dunne, Gary Kelly, Ian Harte, Andy O’Brien; midfield, Roy Keane, Mark Kinsella, Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, Jason McAteer, Colin Healy, Steven Reid; forwards, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Niall Quinn, David Connolly, Clinton Morrison.