Category: Archive

Soccer Scene: Irish boots are hot as playoff approaches

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Dermot Clarke

Mick McCarthy must be looking forward to the vital playoff games with Turkey with a little more relish after the events of the weekend.

Compensation for the loss, once again, of Shay Given came in the shape of quality goals from many of the Irish squad. Given’s latest injury, a hairline fracture of the wrist, will see him out for another month in a year of doom for the young Donegal man.

The rest of the squad seem to be in fine fettle, however, and none more so it seems than one of the veterans, Niall Quinn. Quinn stepped out of the shadow of his prolific partner, Kevin Phillips, scoring twice to seal coach Peter Reid’s 100th victory as Sunderland boss. The Geordies beat Tottenham 2-1 to go joint second in the table, they had to survive a late onslaught when a Steffen Iversen goal brought the Londoners back into it, but it was Quinn’s day. Big Niall won the battle with one of the better center-backs in the game — Sol Campbell. He lost his marker, chested down and knocked home twice in the first half, and Sunderland’s impressive march continues.

Quinn’s likely striking partner for the Turkish conflicts, Robbie Keane, also had a great Sunday. The young Coventry striker could have had a hatfull, but had to settle for an 18th-minute volley in his sides 4-0 thrashing of understrength Watford. Keane was involved in everything and was joined on the scoresheet by Mustapha Hadji, Gary McAllister and his former Wolves teammate Steve Frogatt. You had to feel sorry for the Watford boss, Graham Taylor, without 10 of his first choices and having to spend much of his Sunday afternoon watching Keane — the youngster he signed as a 14-year-old to Wolves — running his defense ragged.

Keane’s namesake, Roy, was also on target at the weekend, when he wrapped up proceedings for United against Aston Villa with a 20- yard strike. Paul Scholes and Andy Cole were the earlier scorers in a 3-0 victory. Ian Harte kept Leeds on top when he picked his spot and drove home to defeat West Ham. And another Irishman, Rory Delap, emerged as the hero for Derby with two goals in a 3-1 victory over Chelsea. So the message is Turkey beware our shooting boots are on.

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No Irish, no goals

No Irishmen at Highbury and no goals either as Arsenal and Newcastle played to stalemate. Arsene Wenger, in his wisdom, chose to sit Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and Nwankwo Kanu on the bench. The Frenchman obviously felt he had enough firepower to cope with the leakiest defense in the Premiership. It was a stubborn bunch Robby Robson put out though, and as the game wore on, Wenger began to realize that it wasn’t going to be easy. Bergkamp and Overmars were introduced to little avail, but he still had his ace in the hole in Kanu. At just around the time that he might have been introduced, however, Martin Keown limped off and Matthew Upson, a defender, had to come on as the third and final sub. So there he was, the hero of the previous week, the man who had scored the first, second and third goals, conceded by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this season, left on the line for the entire game. Newcastle picked up its first away point of the season and Bobby Robson must have thanked Wenger for his philanthropy.

Staying with the Gunners for a moment, and the Wenger genius, Arsenal have qualified for the UEFA Cup. There are now many ways that an English club can qualify for the competition. West Ham gained entry by winning the Inter-Toto Cup. Newcastle were defeated in the FA Cup final but got the place because United, their conquerors, also qualified for the Champions League as holders and League champions. Tottenham won the domestic League (Worthington) Cup and that got them through. They were joined by Arsenal last week. Arsenal qualified by virtue of the fact that they decided to play home games at Wembley Stadium, enabling the club to finish third in their group and gain trap-door entrance to the competition. Arsenal have only managed two victories in six Champions League games at the stadium. Last season, the competition was won for the first time ever by a team that had qualified as runners-up in its League — Manchester United, who finished second to Arsenal in the Premiership.

Why Wembley?

So why play at Wembley? If to allow more fans a chance to see their heroes is the reason, well, then it’s kind of understandable. However, if money be the reason, as it usually is these days, well, then, its false economy. Arsenal would surely have advanced much farther in the competition had they played at Highbury, making the bank manager a lot happier than the extra few heads at headquarters did. Wembley is not the world’s greatest cauldron. The faithful watching the game on the big screen down at Highbury lend as much vocal support as those actually in attendance at Wembley.

Arsenal went away to Barcelona and came home with a point, having gone behind early. They bring the same opposition back to Wembley and are destroyed. A Gabriel Battistuta goal put Fiorentina through and the Gunners out last week. England had to sweat out the Sweden-Poland game hoping the Swedes would allow them gain a playoff spot and give them the chance to still qualify for Euro 2000. The reason — they played to two dismal 0-0 ties against Sweden and Bulgaria, at Wembley. The fact that they, Poland and the aging Bulgarian team, made Sweden look like world beaters in the group, doesn’t really come into it.

Over the years England have performed below capability at Wembley. They beat the always-difficult Italians at Highbury and Tottenham, yet on the other four occasions they played them on home soil, they only emerged victorious once, all four games were at Wembley. Holland has only lost once in five away visits to the Twin Towers, yet they lost 8-2 to England at Huddersfield. There’s always the exception to the rule though, the Republic of Ireland did beat England 2-0 at Goodison Park, Liverpool, but as a home venue Wembley, with the crowd so far from the pitch, holds little advantage for the side calling it home.

Celtic, after a midweek hiccup, falling to Motherwell at home, 1-0, returned to winning ways in emphatic fashion, with a 5-1 victory over Kilmarnock. New signing Ian Wright as he had done with all his previous clubs, scored on his debut. It was Aussie striker Mark Viduka who stole the show with a five-minute hat-trick. Viduka wrapped up the game with his three between minutes 51 and 56. Wright and Craig Burley put the icing on the cake and, with Rangers recording the same scoreline against Aberdeen, the scene is now well and truly set for the Old Firm game on Sunday.

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