By Mark Jones
Ireland 2, Croatia 0
DUBLIN — All through the difficult days as Ireland manager, Mick McCarthy had been consistent about one thing: if he had his best players fit and well, then his team would be a match for anyone.
There was no arguing last Saturday as the Republic produced by far its best performance under McCarthy’s stewardship.
There may be a long way to go in the qualification process for the 2000 European championships, but this was the perfect start. The irreplaceable Roy Keane was back as captain. Denis Irwin, Steve Staunton and Tony Cascarino added the experience. And the young guns, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, provided the unexpected.
Croatia, who finished third at the summer World Cup, may have been without players of the quality of Davor Suker and Alen Boksic, but even on the back of this convincing success McCarthy could also point to the fact that he too was without the injured Niall Quinn and Gary Kelly.
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On this evidence at a packed Lansdowne Road, McCarthy’s faith in a new-look time seems to be well-placed. Even if Keith O’Neill had to depart early in the game with another injury and Duff was substituted at halftime, players like Kenny Cunningham and Shay Given are starting to establish themselves and Mark Kinsella’s introduction at midfield was a complete success.
If Kinsella might have been the most impressive performer, it was Keane who made the real difference to Irish hopes. The Croatians struggled to match Keane’s presence in the center of the pitch, and when he headed the second goal after 15 minutes with a classic piece of opportunism, his eagerly awaited comeback after nearly a year was already complete.
Earlier, Irwin had won and then converted a fourth-minute penalty to give Ireland an ideal opening, and despite a couple of defensive errors by Phil Babb, the home team could have gone three in front during the second half when Kinsella hit the crossbar.
"I’m very pleased," McCarthy said. "We played well and deserved to win. Roy Keane makes a big difference. He’s one of the best players in the world. It was a big plus to have him back."
Croatia didn’t help their chances by having two players sent off in the closing stages. Both Sanic and Jurcic got their marching orders for fouls on Staunton, and if Robbie Keane had been tactically substituted with half an hour left, the hugely promising teenager may have been able to exploit the space created by Croatia’s nine men.
Elsewhere in Ireland’s qualifying group, Macedonia were easy 4-0 winners against Malta.
Ireland’s next assignment comes next month with an away game in Belgrade against Yugoslavia.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, had a dismal start to their qualifying campaign when they were beaten, 3-0, by Turkey in Istanbul.