By Jay Mwamba
Ireland turned on the style after a nervous start to beat Saudi Arabia
3-0 in rain-swept Yokohama Tuesday and clinch a second round berth in the World Cup Finals.
The Republic finished second in Group E to Germany, who defeated Cameroon 2-0 in a testy affair in Shizuoka, after goals by Robbie Keane (7th), Gary Breen (61st), and Damien Duff (87th), had powered them to their first victory of the tournament.
Germany won the group with seven points from two victories and a draw. Ireland tallied five points from one win and two ties. Cameroon (4) and a Saudi Arabian side that lost all its three matches, finished third and fourth, respectively, and failed to make the cut.
Written off by many after midfield general Roy Keane was expelled from the squad three weeks ago after a clash with manager Mick McCarthy, Ireland now return to action in the Round of 16 in Suwon this Sunday (7:25am EST, live on ESPN and Ch. 41 in the tri-state area).
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They will meet the Group B winners, who will be known this morning when leaders Spain (6 points) meet second-place South Africa (4) in D’jeon, Korea. Germany face the eventual Group B runners-up on Saturday.
The result in Yokohama, before 65,000 fans at the International Stadium where the World Cup championship will be decided on June 30, was the largest ever win by Ireland in three trips to the finals.
“It’s great. We deserved it,” an ecstatic McCarthy remarked as he savored the most important victories of his six-year coaching tenure.
“Our first-half performance was probably our worst during the competition,” he said. “We were a bit nervous at first and settled in the second half. The lads were brilliant.”
Nerve-wracking as the occasion was, Ireland, who went into the match third in Group E, still managed to get off to a promising start with the in-form Keane picking up where he ended against Germany in Ibaraki last Wednesday.
Barely seven minutes into the match, skipper Steve Staunton’s long searching ball from the center circle found Gary Kelly deep on the right in the Saudi half.
Kelly proceeded to lop an arching cross in the box, which the 21-year-old Keane timed perfectly as he twisted to his left before volleying into the net from near the penalty spot.
With memories of the Saudis’ 8-0 mauling by Germany 11 days earlier still raw, the stage seemed set for another rout.
But the white-shirted Asian envoys were not about to raise the white flag. Between their compact formation and an unusually patient, almost subdued first-half performance by the Irish, few clear chances were created on either end.
McCarthy’s heroes were in control for most of the half, but they struggled to put any consistent pressure on the Saudis. Goalkeeper Mohammed al-Deayea was also spared the anticipated ‘rial bombardment that resulted in so many goals for the Germans.
To further heighten the suspense surrounding the game, former Asian Footballer of the Year Nawaf al-Temyat made several incursions in Irish territory including one dangerous run in the 23rd minute that was snuffed out by Matt Holland.
On the other end, Kevin Kilbane’s speculative shot from long range was stopped by al-Deayea as the first half wound down.
Niall Quinn, with the height to cause nightmares for the vertically challenged Saudi defense, joined the fray for Ian Harte.
“I thought the smaller lads were being bullied out of it and Quinny gave us a target and something to aim at,” McCarthy later explained the substitution. “He’s a threat, not only in the air but he can hold it up for us too.”
Ireland changed gear and was both more incisive and methodical in attack. In the 49th minute, Duff, a fixture on the left wing this time, produced a magnificent run and passed to Keane, who turned and shot from inside the penalty box. Alas, his shot was just off.
Keane had another crack in the 51st minute but his powerful drive went straight into al-Deayea’s palms.
There was no reprieve for the veteran goalie, however, shortly after the hour when Staunton sent a free kick into the penalty box. Defender Gary Breen held off his marker and showed great skill in side-footing the ball into the net.
Two-zero and regardless of the outcome in Shizuoka, where 10-man Germany were leading Cameroon 1-0 on Marco Bode’s goal (50th), Ireland were in the finals to stay.
The Germans, with their African opponents now reduced to 10 players themselves, would get a second goal through Miroslav Klose (79th).
The final goal of a long dramatic day — when two former world champions and a perennial contender would go home — would, however, be scored by Duff.
His thunderbolt, after yet another brilliant run, would slip out of al-Deayea’s grasp and into the net with three minutes left, as Ireland advanced to the second round of the World Cup.
“We could have scored more, but when you have played three games and qualified for the last 16, you don’t worry,” McCarthy said.
With the second round a cinch and the quarterfinals beckoning, McCarthy raised Irish expectations up another notch.
“I want to go as far as we can,” he said. “We came to try to win it. Is that
realistic? Who knows? Whoever we’ll be facing won’t be relishing the thought of playing us on Sunday, but I’m of course looking forward to it.”
There was praise from skipper Staunton for the green-clad Irish faithfuls in the 65,000 plus crowd in the Yokohama Stadium.
“We saw all the old familiar banners that we see from back home and everywhere we go,” he said. “They are absolutely unbelievable; they just keep on coming and following us.”
Saudi coach Nasser Al-Johar said his had lost the game in the first half but are wiser for the experience.
“In the first half we missed a lot of chances,” he said. “We learned a lot of lessons and gained a lot of experience from our participation in this tournament.”
Ireland: Shay Given, Steve Finnan, Ian Harte (Niall Quinn 46), Steve Staunton, Gary Breen, Gary Kelly (Jason McAteer 80), Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, Mark Kinsella (Lee Carsley 89), Damien Duff, Robbie Keane.
Saudi Arabia: Mohammed Al Deayea, Mohammed Al Jahani (Ahmed Dukhi Al Dossary 79), Redha Tukar, Abdullah Sulaiman Zubromawi (Abdullah Jumaan Al Dosary 68), Fouzi Al Shehri, Hussein Sulimani, Ibrahim Al Shahrani, Abdulaziz Al Khathran (Mohammad Al Shlhoub 67), Khamis Alowairan Al Dosari, Nawaf Al Temyat, Al Hassan Al Yami.