By Jay Mwamba
Come next Tuesday, when Ireland travel to Yokohama for their final Group E match, and the Saudi Arabian goalkeeper on the night may be the only thing standing between the Republic and a place in the Round of 16.
That is the likely ramification of Germany’s eight-goal scoring spree against the Saudis, who are also expected to serve as cannon folder for Ireland’s other group rivals, Cameroon, in Saitama tomorrow (4:55 a.m. EST).
The specter of goal difference deciding the group winners or runners-up is a distinct possibility.
Ireland, who are favored to pick up all three points against the Asian envoys, should know the drill by now. On their two previous trips to the finals — at Italia ’90 and USA ’94 — they advanced to the second round on goal differential after all the stats had been tallied up.
The onus will therefore be on Mick McCarthy’s forwards to deliver and deliver often. McCarthy could even go for broke and play the 6-foot-4 Niall Quinn up front with Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, who were both active but kept out of shooting range by Cameroon’s hulking defenders.
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Despite the experience of goalie Mohammed Al-Deayea, who won his 169th cap on that nightmarish night in Sapporo against the Germans last weekend, Saudi Arabia’s Swiss cheese defense proved highly vulnerable to crosses into the box.
Five of the eight goals they conceded were from headers, a traditional Irish forte — and a Quinn specialty.
Still, players like Keane, who missed several gilt-edged chances against both Cameroon, and Nigeria before that, will have to improve on their finishing if Ireland are to come anywhere close to matching the German tally against Saudi Arabia.
Ineffectual in midfield and without a pulse up front, where only Sami al-Jaber accounted for his presence, the Saudis will be hard pressed to mount any serious threat to a side determined to prove to its detractors that there is life after Roy Keane.
One of Saudi Arabia’s main problems is that without any players from the world’s top leagues to call on, their team lacks the exposure and experience to be competitive at World Cup level.
As was the case against the Germans, going up against players of the quality of Steve Staunton, Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer or Keane represents a big jump in class for them.
Saudi newspapers lashed out at their national team after the Sapporo debacle, with one headline pointedly summing up the squad’s deficiencies thus: “No defense, no midfield, no attack . . . not even goalkeeping.”
Another paper demanded that the squad return home immediately and called the loss a scandal.
Ironically, Ireland’s cause could receive an inadvertent assist from Cameroon if the Lions play to form and maul the Saudis tomorrow.
A Cameroonian victory would eliminate Nasser al-Johar’s side from the running, leaving Middle Eastern state with little to play for next Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia acknowledged as much after in their post-mortem of the Germany match.
“Mathematically speaking, we still have a chance to make it to the second round [but] only a convincing result against Cameroon will lift the spirits of all the team, and we have to concentrate on this beginning now,” said Prince Turki Bin-Khaled, head of the Saudis’ World Cup delegation.
Ireland have a good record against Arab teams, with a 2-0 loss to World Cup-bound Algeria in Algiers back in April 1982 being the only blemish. There have been wins over Tunisia (4-0) and Morocco (1-0), as well as a goalless tie with a defensive-minded Egyptian side at Italia ’90.
Come Tuesday and the Republic should keep their good run going. The margin of victory in Yokohama may ultimately decide whether they advance to the second round or not.