By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy has already been dealt a blow before the two-leg European soccer championship playoff against Turkey gets under way. Steve Staunton is definitely out of both Saturday’s game at Lansdowne Road and of the return leg in Bursa next Wednesday.
Staunton, who was a certainty to play on the left side of McCarthy’s defense, injured his knee during Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Derby last weekend. Although Staunton’s form at international level has not always been up to standard this season, his vast experience would’ve boosted Ireland’s chances of qualifying for next year’s finals in Holland and Belgium.
Winger Mark Kennedy is also doubtful because of a hamstring strain, while Denis Irwin has a knee problem. With Irwin optimistic about his fitness, Kennedy is causing more concern in the build-up to Saturday’s game.
In-form Ian Harte is the most likely replacement for Staunton at left back. Currently performing superbly in the English Premiership for Leeds United, Harte hasn’t started a meaningful international game in the last two years. However, McCarthy will find it hard to overlook him this time.
If Kennedy is ruled out, then Keith O’Neill could be called into the squad. Kennedy is seen as having a key role in McCarthy’s strategy for the opening game, when the emphasis is likely to be on attack. If O’Neill is fit, then the manager may choose select two wingers in Kennedy and Kevin Kilbane.
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Most important of all, McCarthy will have been mighty relieved that Roy Keane is back in the frame after his injury. Without their captain, Ireland’s chances of making next year’s finals would plummet overnight. If his younger namesake, Robbie, can deliver alongside Niall Quinn in attack, then qualification is probable, rather than possible.
Despite a great deal of media hype regarding the game in Bursa as some nightmare trip into the uncivilized world, the Irish have enough quality and enough experience to win. Drawn largely from the Galatasaray and Fenerbace clubs, Turkey have established performers in center forward Hakan Sukur and midfielder Sergin Yalcin, but they are hardly world beaters.
The first leg at Lansdowne Road holds the clue. If the Irish can somehow carry a two-goal advantage into the second match, then the dream of qualification for the Euro finals should be realized.