By Mark Jones
Ireland 1, Portugal 1
DUBLIN — The Irish are alive and still kicking, but after this latest World Cup qualifying result at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, the chances of winning Group 2 and going directly to next year’s finals are effectively gone. With a much easier finishing schedule, Portugal are bang on course, with Ireland and Holland fighting it out for a playoff place.
It could have been worse. Portugal were infinitely superior in all areas of the pitch, so much so that if the home team had trailed by three goals at halftime, it would have been no injustice. Without the injured first choice center backs, Kenny Cunningham and Gary Breen, the green defense was as leaky as a sieve. But survival was possible, and the reason? Roy Keane.
If any one player epitomized the desire and the determination to stay in the game despite the visitors’ dominance, it was Ireland’s inspirational captain. With a combination of relentless workrate and brilliant positional sense, Keane overshadowed the world’s most expensive player, Luis Figo, with a simply breathtaking performance.
Somehow, the Irish contrived to be level going past the hour mark and suddenly a valuable draw was a possibility when Keane powered his way into the Portuguese penalty area to get in a shot that was deflected past Pureira in goal. Not improbable that the Great One had scored, but remarkable that this makeshift home team was actually in front against such high quality opposition.
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Enter Mick McCarthy. The touchline brains trust had clearly been anticipating a 0-0 draw, and midfielder Matt Holland was being prepared to come on as a substitute for a the attacking Niall Quinn just when Keane scored. But instead of reassessing the situation and keeping up the pressure on Portugal, for some reason, McCarthy stuck to his plan, made the change, and within 10 minutes Figo had scored an equalizer.
The manager probably had different intentions, but his safety-first strategy handed the initiative back to the Portuguese at a time when Ireland had some momentum.
"I accept the change didn’t work out," McCarthy said later. "The last thing I said to the players was, ‘Whatever you do, don’t sit back.’ But it happens. Maybe the substitution sent a negative response to the team, but it wasn’t the intention. The fact is, the ball ended up in the net. Was it because I changed the formation, or was it because the best player in the world scored with a good header? Hard to know."
Hard indeed, but McCarthy shouldn’t have passed the buck on to his players. In the final analysis, a draw was a perfectly acceptable result — probably more than Ireland deserved — but there was just chance for several moments to snatch a priceless victory that would have changed the balance at the top of the group. McCarthy could see that chance from the sideline, but he failed to grasp it.
The remaining bad news concerns Keane, who picked up a yellow card which rules him out of today’s game against Estonia in Tallinn. Equally, there was a spat when the Portuguese manager, Antonio Oliveira, refused to shake McCarthy’s hand last Saturday. Oliveira had apparently been angered by some bad press in Ireland — particularly regarding his defender Fernando Couto, who had been banned from the game for failing a dope test.
But the real problems for McCarthy were on the pitch. Richard Dunne had a nightmare game in the center of defense, and Robbie Keane looked unfit in attack. The Irish need to win in Tallinn to keep those playoff hopes alive and they take on Estonia without the player who made all the difference against Portugal. Life without Roy Keane looks bleak.