By Dermot Clarke
The Republic of Ireland team are probably responsible for as many cardiac arrests in the country as P.J. Carroll, John Player, John Jameson and Paddy Power combined. We went 2-nil up against Malta in 20 minutes and it looked like it was going to be a rout. "This is grand," we thought, and as the lads began to stroke the ball around, we weighed up the permutations. "If we beat Macedonia, we win the group, plain and simple."
We went in 2-0 up at the break, the only real threat to our goal was caused by a short back-pass by Lee Carsley. A halftime fireworks display celebrated victory over the Turks in the 16th century, Malta’s last victory. The fireworks gave a hint of things to come. We did appear to be sitting on the two-goal lead and, as the second half progressed, the Maltese were coming more into it. Eight days of traveling and playing seemed to be taking their toll. But surely we couldn’t lose a two-goal lead against a team made up largely of hotel workers, could we? We could. In five minutes, the excellent Robbie Keane goal and the Gary Breen header were wiped out. It looked like our gargantuan efforts against Croatia and Yugoslavia were about to be also.
A hopeful looping volley from Brian Said eluded Kelly and David Carabott converted a penalty awarded after a goalmouth melee, Kenny Cunningham the alleged culprit in the incident. Horror, disbelief. Malta 2, Republic of Ireland 2. We were hanging on for the draw. Then with 72 on the clock it happened. Niall Quinn won a free kick on the edge of the area, and up stepped Steve Staunton, who curled it around the wall and past Barry in the Maltese goal.
Thanks to some fine goalkeeping by Alan Kelly, we held on for the victory. "Stan the Man" was a popular headline on Thursday. Stan being Steve Staunton of course. Staunton had scored the winner and earlier cleared off the line when Kelly was beaten. In these eight days, "Stan" has been the man, the man that each of the three opposing coaches sought to exploit. I don’t know what has happened to him, he’s still a young man, but he’s no longer "the man," nor is Gary Breen, for that matter.
A victory against Macedonia next month should see us through. We will need a full complement to achieve it: A fit Roy Keane and Denis Irwin and an honest team selection. The likes of Ian Harte and Steven Carr must be seriously considered, and Tony Cascarino has enough caps now, Mick.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Not many teams could gift Manchester United two goals and still come out on top. Jamie Carragher scored two own goals on Saturday as United beat Liverpool 3-2. Only 4 minutes had elapsed when Carragher headed in a Ryan Giggs cross at the Kop end. Every Liverpool schoolboy’s dream it is, playing against United and scoring at the Kop end. With just over a quarter of an hour gone, Andy Cole headed home to make it two.
Sami Hyppia brought Liverpool back into it with a diving header after United’s new signing in nets Massimo Taibi had misjudged a cross from the right. But Carragher wasn’t finished and he restored the two goal advantage for United just before the break with a diving header. Penalty claims were denied in that first half. Henning Berg wrestled Fowler to the ground, but that was canceled out by David Thompson’s tugging of Giggs’s shirt United led 3-1 at the break. Amazingly, though Nicky Butt was allowed to punch away a corner kick without penalty.
Gerard Houllier no doubt called for closer marking on Cole and Carragher in the second period. Vladimir Smicer replaced Thompson at the half, Michael Owen was still on the bench. Liverpool pitched tent in the United half of the field. Before Patrik Berger reduced the deficit to one, Taibi had proven his worth with fine saves from Smicer and Fowler. Owen and Veggard Heggem were introduced after 64 minutes, and four minutes later Berger held off Berg before slotting home. Four minutes after that Andy Cole was sent to the line for kicking Rigobert Song.
The Liverpool siege continued. Owens’s speed almost secured the point when he latched on to a deflection and knocked it under Taibi only to see it roll inches wide. United though held on somehow and referee Barber’s full-time whistle signaled another day of agony on the Spion Kop.
Suker leads Arsenal
Davor Suker marked his full debut for Arsenal with two goals against Aston Villa. Arsenal won 3-1 and there were signs of a return to Liverpool form for David James in this one. Julian Joachim gave Villa the lead just before the break, but with 50 minutes gone in the game, Suker had turned the tables with another injury-time goal in the first half and a second on 49. Kanu wrapped it up for the Gunners in the 82nd minute.
Chelsea and West Ham moved into second and third, six points behind United but both with two games in hand. A Frank Lebeouf penalty inflicted more pain on Newcastle and Paulo di Canio provided the winner for the Hammers against Watford. A thriller at Highfield Road saw Leeds taking the points in a 4-3 victory, Gary McAllister and Darren Huckerby both scoring against the old club in that one. Sunderland took full points at home to Leicester thanks to goals from Butler and McCann and Everton won away to Sheffield Wednesday 2-0, Barmby and Scott Gemmill the scorers there.
Mark Burchill was the Celtic hero as the youngster provided the winner at Kilmarnock, Rangers overcame Aberdeen 3-0 on Saturday so it’s as you were in Scotland.
Spare a thought . . .
Finally, while we’re all a tad annoyed at having to sweat out the last quarter of yet another Irish international game, let’s spare a thought for our neighbors. Scotland should secure a play-off berth after a 0-0 draw with Estonia. Wales’ chance at a playoff were squashed by Denmark, who came from 2 down to beat the Italians, in Italy, and England’s 0-0 tie in Poland means that Sweden must beat the Poles in order for them to gain a playoff spot.
Here we are with a good chance of emerging as group winners. Failing that, we should at least make the playoffs. We’re not that bad, really, are we?