An own goal by Albanian defender Aliaj in the last minute means that if the Irish can manage to win their remaining three Group 10 games, they will qualify without any need for a playoff.
That scenario looked most unlikely during the second half of a game in which the home team failed to spark. The introduction of Gary Doherty a quarter of an hour from the end Saturday was a throwback to the days of Jack Charlton when Tony Cascarino would lumber off the bench in search of a goal. This time, however, it worked for Brian Kerr as Doherty’s hopeful cross was deflected into the net by the hapless Aliaj.
Doherty’s skills are severely limited when matched against those of Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. But his physical presence and determination were important in those dying minutes as Ireland strove for a result.
“It was a bit late alright,” admitted Kerr. “I felt though we’d win the game. Later and later, I wasn’t so sure.”
With Switzerland and Russia drawing 2-2, victories over Georgia and Russia at Lansdowne Road, and over Switzerland in Basle, would see Kerr’s side topping the group. While last weekend’s performance was uneven at best, the manager was still able to see the way the ground has shifted since Mick McCarthy’s resignation.
“If everyone is fair and honest, we were out of it in January when I got the job,” he said. “Then after the results in Albania and Georgia we seemed to be back in it, and now people are starting to ask can we win the group. It’s changed a bit.”
Kerr’s decision to play Duff behind the two strikers, Robbie Keane and David Connolly, instead of his usual position wide on the left, and to deploy three players in midfield was hardly a success on this occasion as his team failed to build on the bonus of an early Keane goal.
Within a minute, Albania broke clear on the left side of Ireland’s defense and Rraklli’s cross found Skela in space for an easy equalizer. The goal was uncharacteristic of the defensive organization that Kerr has created, but despite some harsh words among several Irish players, the quest for another goal soon began in earnest.
With Connolly struggling to make an impact, and with Duff heavily marked, Keane was the best bet, but the Albanian back four, marshaled impressively by Cipi, were up to the task. When Duff began to labor with a knee problem, which makes him doubtful for Wednesdays game against Georgia, Kerr changed the formation with the introduction of Lee Carsley, Steven Reid and Doherty.
With time running out and with Irish chances looking increasingly slim, Stephen Carr found Doherty on the edge of the box and his cross in front of the goal was turned into the roof of the net by Aliaj, who was under pressure from Carsley.
“I said all along that I didn’t mind how we got the winning goal,” reflected Kerr. “We’re trying to blend a new team and at the same time, we’re trying to win a few matches. There are some bits that I’d have liked done better, but I think we’ll perform better against Georgia.”
Ireland will need to, but if Kerr’s run of luck remains, maybe his team won’t need to be at their best.