By Jay Mwamba
Portugal’s dramatic 2-2 World Cup draw with Holland last Wednesday left Ireland at the top of Group 2 and in control of their own destiny in the qualifying competition for the 2002 finals in Japan/Korea.
The result means that Ireland could win the group and qualify automatically for next summer’s championship by defeating both Portugal and the stuttering Dutch in Dublin.
Roy Keane and Co. top the standings with 11 points from three wins and two draws — ahead of Portugal on goal difference — while Holland are three points adrift in third place. But even more significant for the Republic is that with the exception of the June 6 sortie to Estonia, four of their remaining five qualifiers are at home.
Irish boss Mick McCarthy has Portuguese superstar Luis Figo to thank for securing the Republic’s position at the top, claimed earlier on Wednesday with the 3-0 romp over Andorra in Barcelona.
Figo, at $56 million the world’s most expensive player, brought Portugal back from a 2-0 deficit with seven minutes remaining in Porto to deny Holland a certain victory. He had a hand in Pauleta’s 83rd minute goal that narrowed the Dutch lead, then won and converted a penalty on the stroke of full time to tie the game.
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Dutch coach Luis van Gaal, whose talented squad had struck through Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (17th pen) and Patrick Kluivert (47th), blamed the team for dropping two vital points saying: "We were trying too hard to score a third and that left our defense exposed."
Van Gaal should, however, be held culpable for curiously bringing sending on two strikers before Portugal scored, when the Dutch strategy should have been to close shop and preserve their 2-0 advantage.
He said the draw means that Holland now must overcome Ireland in Dublin to finish as group runners-up and reach the finals via the playoff route.
"Now we have to beat the Irish and that is possible," Van Gaal said.
Holland should, at any rate, nudge Portugal out of second position on April 25 when they host Cyprus. Ireland entertain Andorra in Dublin on the same day.
Estonia, the only team Ireland has yet to play in Group 2, got late goals from Marko Kristal (75th) and Raio Piiroja (77th) in a 2-all tie with Cyprus in Limassol. Michalis Constantinou (47th) and Yiannakis Okkas (65th) were the Cypriot scorers.
Even with their qualification hopes ended, Northern Ireland went down fighting in Sofia, succumbing 4-3 to Bulgaria after trailing 4-1 with six minutes to play.
Mark Williams (15th) canceled out Krassimir Balakov 7th penalty, but Martin Petrov (17th, 78th) and Krassimir Chomakov (72nd) had Bulgaria cruising in the Group 3 fixture before Stuart Elliot (84th) and David Healy (90th pen) nearly scripted an improbable come back for the fourth-placed North (1-1-3, 4 points).
The Czech Republic (11) stayed a point ahead of Bulgaria despite a goalless draw with Denmark in Prague.
Liverpool’s dazzling Michael Owen (74th), Paul Scholes (85th) and Andy Cole (90th) completed a four-day two-match sweep for England in Group 9 by connecting in a 3-1 win over Albania in Tirana. Altin Rraklli (90th), who later announced his international retirement, was the Albanian scorer.
In Athens, 10-man Germany (12) overwhelmed Greece 4-2 to maintain a five-point edge over the English at the top. Marko Rehmer (6th), Michael Ballack (25th pen), Miroslav Klose (81st) and Marco Bode (89th) tallied for the Germans, who had Sebastian Deisler dismissed (60th), while Angelos Haristeas (20th) and Giorgos Georgiadis (44th) replied for Greece.
Defender Colin Hendry turned goal scorer for Scotland, netting twice (22nd, 32nd) as the Scots finally claimed first place in Group 6 with a 4-0 thrashing of San Marino in Glasgow. Billy Dodds (33rd) and Colin Cameron (64th) were also on target.
Undefeated Scotland (3-2-0, 11) moved ahead of Belgium by three points.
Nigerian-born striker Emannuel Olisadebe kept Poland on track to their first finals since 1986 when he struck again in the 4-0 rout of Armenia in Warsaw. The Zewlakow brothers, Michal (15th pen) and Marcin (81st) also got on the scoreboard in the Group 5 fixture, as did Bartosz Karwan (88th).
Second-placed Belarus (10), three points behind Poland, pipped Norway 2-1 in Minsk, with Roman Vasilyuk (90th) chalking up a last gasp winner after Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskj’r (68th) had canceled out Alexander Khatskevich’s 19th minute effort.
Elsewhere in the Group, Andriy Shevchenko (52nd) earned number three side Ukraine (8) a 1-1 tie with Wales, whose John Hartson (11th) was on the mark, in Cardiff.
A hat trick by Alexander Frei (9th, 31st, 90th) and a goal apiece by Johann Lonfat (64th) and the veteran Stephane Chapuisat (72nd) propelled Switzerland to a 5-0 win over Luxembourg in Zurich.
The Swiss (8) stayed two points behind Group 1 pace-setters Russia, who decisioned the Faroe Islands 1-0 in Moscow, courtesy of Alexander Mostovoi (19th).
Yugoslavia’s qualifying hopes suffered another setback following a 1-all tie with Slovenia in Ljubljana. Zlatko Zahovic (90th) was the local hero after his stoppage time equalizer ruled out Savo Milosevic’s 32nd minute strike for Yugoslavia.
Slovakia, Turkey and Sweden all won to remain level on 11 points at the top of Group 4.
The Slovaks, ahead on goal differential, knocked off Azerbaijan 3-1 in Trnava, thanks to Szilard Nemeth (1st, 10th) and Lubomir Meszaros (57th). Vadim Vasilyev (3rd pen) replied for the visitors.
Turkey overcame a 1-0 Macedonian lead through an Igor Mitrevski own goal (68th) and Umit Davala’s (69th) clincher to triumph 2-1 in Skopje. Toni Micevski (20th) scored for Macedonia.
And in Chisinau, Markus Allback (89th, 90th) left the best for last as Sweden decisioned Moldova 2-0.
Austria’s Michael Baur etched a dubious record of sorts against Isr’l in Vienna, scoring twice in the opening nine minutes, once for each side. Austria prevailed 2-1 to narrow the gap with Group 7 leaders Spain (10) to two.
Bauer’s own goal gave the Isr’lis the lead after six minutes, but the midfielder atoned for his error with the equalizer three minutes later, before Andreas Herzog’s penalty (41st) won it for Austria.
In Vaduz, Liechtenstein crashed 3-0 to Bosnia 3, whose Sergej Barbarez (10th, 72nd) and Almedin Hota (89th) scored.
The Italian attacking duo of Filippo Inzaghi (17th, 63rd) and Alessandro Del Piero (49th, 79th) moved the Azzurri a step closer to the finals with an emphatic 4-0 victory over Lithuania in Trieste.
Italy (4-1-0, 13) lead Group 8 by seven points over Romania, who came away from Tbilisi with a 2-0 win over Georgia. Dorinel Munteanu (68th) and Cosmin Contra (81st).