By Jay Mwamba
How much Luis Figo’s stunning header in Dublin last Saturday may have damaged Ireland’s World Cup qualification hopes could be known as early as today when the Republic tackle an Estonian side smarting from a dramatic 4-2 loss to Holland.
Although the 1-1 tie with Portugal left Ireland (4-3-0, 15) still in control of Group 2, their lead was cut to just one point by the Dutch win in Tallinn, where the Estonians are lying in wait to vent their ire for their late collapse against Holland.
Adding some intrigue to the Irish jaunt to the Baltic State is the absence of captain courageous and Saturday’s goal hero, Roy Keane, who will sit out the qualifier after receiving a yellow card in the Portugal match.
Said Estonian coach Arno Pijpers after his men twice blew the lead against the Ruud van Nistelrooy-inspired Dutch last weekend: "The players feel very bad at this moment, but tomorrow morning we will start again. The team will have to pick itself up before the game with Ireland."
Estonia appeared on their way to victory when Andres Oper drew first blood in the 65th minute. The sluggish Dutch then momentarily caught a break, courtesy of an own goal by Raio Piiroja (70th), but fell behind once again when Indrek Zelinski (78th) struck.
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Enter the Manchester United-bound van Nistelrooy, who came on for Chelsea’s Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. He reeled in two quick goals (86th, 89th) to turn the match around for the visitors. Patrick Kluivert (90th) added an insurance goal on the stroke of full time.
With Figo’s heroics in Dublin denying Ireland three vital points, the victory hauled the Dutch (4-2-1, 14) to within a point of the leaders, whom they meet in a do-or-die encounter at Lansdowne Road on Sept. 1.
Portugal (3-3-0, 12) should, however, nudge Holland back into third place when they meet Cyprus in Lisbon today.
Dutch boss Louis Van Gaal aptly summed up the scenario in the putative "Group of Death."
"The situation is still in our own hands," he said. "Ireland will be the crucial match. Either Holland, Ireland or Portugal will be killed in this group."
For his part, Ireland manager Mick McCarthy fancies Portugal’s chances of winning Group 2 and the automatic berth to next year’s finals in Japan/Korea.
"We need to win the next three games and get 24 points," he said." I don’t have any doubt that they [Portugal] will win their next four games."
Indeed, the Portuguese have the easiest schedule among the contenders in the group. Their remaining fixtures, starting today, are against Cyprus (twice), Estonia and Andorra.
Bulgaria (4-1-1, 13) took a one-point lead in Group 3, ahead of their sojourn to Iceland today, on the back of a 1-0 decision over Northern Ireland in Belfast.
Georgi Ivanov beat goalkeeper Maik Talor from close range in the 52nd minute to net the only goal of the match.
The North (1-1-4, 4), second from the bottom in the group, return to action today against the Czech Republic, who succumbed 2-1 to Denmark in Copenhagen. Ebbe Sand (6th) and Jon Dahl Tomasson (82nd) produced for the Danes on either side of Roman Tyce’s effort for the Czechs (40th).
Next up for Sand and Co. today are Malta, iced 3-0 in Reykjavik on goals by Iceland’s Tryggvi Gudmundsson (7th), Rikhardur Dadason (38th), and Eidur Smari Gudjohnsen (68th).
Nigerian-born striker Emmanuel Olisadebe (32nd) struck again as Poland (16) made it five wins from six starts in Group 5 with a 2-1 victory over Wales in Cardiff.
Olisadebe got the Poles back on track with the equalizer after Nathan Blake (13th) had shot Wales ahead. Pawel Kryszalowicz (72nd) bagged the winner.
Poland could all but ensure their qualification with a win over bottom side Armenia in Yerevan today. The Armenians battled second-place Belarus (11) to a goalless tie at the weekend.
Also in the group, Norway held No. 3 Ukraine (9) to a 0-0 tie before 42,000 fans in Kiev. The Ukraine host Wales today, while Belarus are away to Norway.
Roma’s Marco Delvecchio (45th) and Francesco Totti (66th) were on target in Tbilisi as pace-setters Italy held off Georgia 2-1 and moved to within three points of qualifying from Group 8. Georgi Gakhokidze (80th) was the Georgian scorer.
Italy (5-1-0, 16) can win the group with a victory over Lithuania in their next match on September 1.
In Bucharest, second-placed Romania (3-0-2, 9) blanked Hungary, 2-0, thanks to Marius Micul’ (3rd, 53rd).
Today’s group fixtures are: Lithuania vs. Romania and Hungary vs. Georgia.
Germany produced one of their patent comebacks of yore to salvage a point in Helsinki from a 2-all tie with Finland. The result extended the Germans’ lead at the top of Group 9 to six over England ahead of today’s schedule.
Finland led 2-0 on Mik’l Forssel’s first-half brace (28th, 43rd) before the Germans got going in the second half. Michael Ballack (69th) pulled one back from the penalty spot and three minutes later Bayern Munich’s Carsten Jancker connected to force the tie.
Germany are in Tirana today to face Albania, who were edged 1-0 by Greece in Heraklion on Nikos Machlas’ goal (72nd). Greece, meanwhile, date Sven Goran Eriksson’s resurgent England (2-1-1, 7) in Athens.
Yugoslavia’s Predrag Mijatovic (32nd) canceled out Yuri Kovtun’s 25th-minute goal for Russia in a 1-1 draw in Group 1.
Switzerland (3-2-1, 11) moved to within three points of Russia at the helm with a 1-0 result over the Faroe Islands in Toftir. Alexander Frei (80th) scored.
Third-placed Slovenia (10) — Switzerland’s opponents today — stayed in contention by blanking Luxembourg 2-0 in Ljubljana on goals by Zlatko Zahovic (35th, 65th penalty).
It doesn’t get better for Luxembourg today as they square off with Russia, while Yugoslavia journey to the Faroe Islands.
Tayfun Korkut (2nd), Okay Derelioglu (29th), and Hakan Sukur (33rd) powered Group 4 joint leaders Turkey to a 3-0 romp over Azerbaijan in Istanbul.
Sweden kept pace with the Turks on the 14-point mark by knocking off Slovakia, 2-0, in Stockholm on Marcus Allback’s brace (45th, 51st).
Elsewhere in the group, Macedonia and Moldova played out a 2-2 draw in Skopje. Artim Sakiri (20th penalty) and Mile Krstev (65th) tallied for Macedonia, while Serghei Pogreban (10th) and Ruslan Barburos (72nd) replied for the visitors.
Playing today are Turkey vs. Macedonia, Sweden vs. Moldova and Azerbaijan vs. Slovakia.
Belgium made the most of Scotland’s inactivity to defeat Latvia 3-1 in Brussels and join the idle Scots at the top of Group 6 (11).
Marc Wilmots (2nd), Emile Mpenza (12th), and Mihails Zemlinskis (50th, own goal) accounted for the scoring. Marians Pahars (52nd) got Latvia’s consolation goal.
In Varadzin, Goran Vlaovic (3rd), Bosko Balaban (29th), Davor Suker (54th, penalty), and Davor Vugrinec (61st) starred as Croatia (8) sank San Marino 4-0.
A late blitz in Oviedo propelled Spain to a 4-1 win over Bosnia and first place in Group 7.
Bosnia’s Mirsad Beslija (41st) had tied the game after Fernando Hierro’s (26th) icebreaker for Spain. But three goals in the last 14 minutes by Javi Moreno (76th), Raul (89th), and Diego Tristan (90th) clinched it for the Spaniards (4-1-0, 13), who now lead idle Austria by two points.
Spain could extend that lead today when they visit Isr’l, 3-0 victors over Liechtenstein in Vaduz last weekend.
Haim Revivo (2nd), Idan Tal (6th) and Avi Nimi (17th) connected for the third-placed Isr’lis (9).