By Mark Jones
and Jay Mwamba
DUBLIN — The Republic of Ireland’s international soccer squad face a week of important tests in their bid to qualify for the finals of next year’s European Soccer championships. Today at Lansdowne Road, Ireland’s opponents are Group 8 favorites Yugolsavia. Then, on Saturday, it’s on to Zagreb to take on Croatia, with their demanding odyssey finishing in Malta next Wednesday.
With three wins from four games — a loss by Yugoslavia has been manager Mick McCarthy’s only setback so far — the Republic are very much in contention for the one automatic qualifying place. Another seven points from wins over the Yugoslavs and Malta, coupled with a draw against Croatia, would greatly strengthen McCarthy’s hand. Even two draws and an expected victory in Malta would keep the group simmering.
"We’re setting out with a strategy to beat Yugoslavia, but, clearly, not to lose is vital," McCarthy said this week. "A draw wouldn’t be the end of the world. This group is still wide open."
The manager already has had to plan without Damien Duff, who is troubled by a hamstring problem, so Kevin Kilbane could be called for today’s game. There is also a slight doubt over Denis Irwin’s participation, due to a sore Achilles tendon, and Ian Harte is on stand-by.
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With Roy Keane in impressive form this season, the midfield area is strong and with Robbie Keane scoring again for his new club Coventry last weekend, the teenager will resume his striking partnership with Niall Quinn.
"The players feel they can beat anybody at Lansdowne Road," McCarthy said. "We’ve had good results and hopefully that winning trend will continue."
With Yugoslavia almost certain to adopt a safety first approach, it will the first part of a tough week-long assignment.
As for Yugoslavia, new coach Vujadin Boskov fears the worst for his Serb side in today’s match. Boskov, who replaced Milan Zivadinovic over the summer, will be without five starters, including goalie Ivica Kralj, and is also concerned about his side’s overall lack of match fitness.
"Jovan Stankovic and Goran Djorovic are injured, Zoran Mirkovic and Slavisa Jokanovic are sidelined by two yellow cards, and keeper Ivica Kralj has just notified us his knee injury is back," Boskov said at a Belgrade press conference last week.
"To tell the truth, my team is not in top physical shape, Our men play in five or six national leagues, some of which haven’t even began. The Irish players already have four rounds of league soccer behind them."
Two big names that should be at Lansdowne Road today are veteran midfielders Dragan Stojkovic, the team captain, and former A.C. Milan star Dejan Savicevic, both of whom missed Yugoslavia’s goalless home tie with Croatia on Aug. 18.
Hinting that the Serbs will play for a draw, Boskov said of the two playmakers: "Their styles are very similar (and) it might be risky for us to play an overly offensive game, so Stojkovic and Savicevic will probably play 45 minutes each."
Yugoslavia (3-1-0, 10 points) edged Ireland 1-0 in Belgrade last March and enter the Lansdowne ground a point behind group leaders Croatia (3-2-1, 11), who host the Republic (3-0-1, 9) in Zagreb on Saturday.
As is Ireland’s plight, today’s match is the first of three in an eight-day killer schedule for Yugoslavia on the road to next summer’s 16-nation European soccer finals, to be co-hosted by Holland and Belgium. Yugoslavia have a home date on Sunday with Macedonia, who they face again in Skopje three days later.