By Jay Mwamba
Portugal, with a game in hand to Ireland, hit Cyprus for six in Lisbon last Wednesday as they revved up for their assault on the Group 2 leadership. The result means the Portuguese are a cinch to knock Ireland out of first place when they meet Andorra on Sept. 1, despite the unbeaten Republic improving to 5-3-0 (18 points) with their victory over Estonia in Tallinn on Wednesday.
Portugal felt the absence of suspended midfield impresario Luis Figo in a frustrating first half against the Cypriots, which ended with a Pedro Pauleta goal (36th) separating the two sides. But the floodgates opened after the interval, with Pedro Barbosa (55th, 59th), Pauleta again (71st) and Joao Pinto (76th, 81st) completing the rout.
Portugal (4-3-0, 15) climbed into second position in the group while putting themselves in a strong position to win the group if they win their three remaining fixtures against Andorra, Cyprus again and Estonia.
For Ireland, the Portuguese triumph means the ante has been substantially raised for their next match (Sept. 1) against the unpredictable Dutch. Defeat in Dublin will effectively end their qualification hopes for the 2002 finals.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
Northern Ireland held out gallantly for 88 minutes against the Czech Republic in Group 3 before succumbing 3-1 in Teplice.
There was more drama after the game when four players and the goalkeeping coach were prevented from leaving the country for 24 hours, while being questioned for an incident at a Prague nightclub.
Philip Mulryne (45th) canceled out Pavel Kuka’s (40th) first goal for the Czechs. Second from the bottom in the group and out of contention, the North (1-1-5, 4) still proceeded to hold out until the final two minutes, when Kuka (88th) and Milan Baros (90th) struck.
The late victory pushed the once-beaten Czechs back in second place (4-2-1, 14) on goal differential over Bulgaria who salvaged a 1-all tie in Iceland on Dimitar Berbatov’s 81st minute equalizer. Rikhardur Dadason (43rd) was the Icelandic scorer.
Denmark (4-3-0, 15) head the group by a point following their narrow 2-1 decision over bottom side Malta in Copenhagen. Ebbe Sand (43rd, 83rd) brought the Danes back after George Mallia’s stunning opener (8th).
Second-place England (3-1-1, 10) returned from Athen’s with a vital 2-0 victory over Greece that continued their revival in Group 9.
The Manchester United duo of Paul Scholes (64th) and David Beckham (87th) connected to give coach Sven Goran Eriksson a record fifth consecutive victory since he took over early this year.
The streak will, however, be on the line Sept. 1 when the English renew an old rivalry with group leaders Germany (16) in Munich. The Germans shut out Albania 2-0 in Tirana on strikes by Marko Rehmer (28th) and Michael Ballack (68th) after both teams had been reduced to 10 men.
Dmitry Alenichev (16th) and Sergei Semak (76th) eked out a 2-1 win in Luxembourg to keep Russia (5-2-0, 17) four points clear at the top of Group 1. Sacha Schneider (48th) was on target for Luxembourg.
Switzerland (11) dropped to third place following a 1-0 loss in Basel to Slovenia (13). Sebastijan Cinirogic (83rd) pulled it out for the visitors.
In Toftir, fourth place Yugoslavia (9) thrashed the Faroe Islands 6-0, on goals by Dejan Stankovic (20th, 55th), Mateja Kezman (29th, 87th, 90th) and Savo Milosevic (68th).
Celtic hero Henrik Larsson produced one of his vintage Parkhead performances to lead Sweden to a 6-0 romp over Moldova and first place in Group 4.
Larsson reeled in four goals, three of them from the penalty spot, in the Gothenburg rout as the Swedes (5-2-0, 17) opened up a two-point lead over Turkey. Niclas Alexandersson (74th) and Daniel Andersson (77th) were the other marksmen.
The Turks dropped two vital points at home to Macedonia, despite Alpay Ozalan’s hat trick (43rdm 58th, 70th) in Bursa. Artim Sakiri (7th), Zarko Serafimovski (20th) and Igor Sasa Nikolovski (62nd) were on target for 10-man Macedonia, who had Mile Krstev ejected (48th) in the 3-all tie.
Also in the group, Azerbaijan blanked third-place Slovakia 2-0 in Baku thanks to Vadim Vasilyev (26th) and Zaur Tagizade (55th).
Four players were sent off in Yerevan where Poland’s bid for a place in next summer’s finals was stymied — for now — by a 1-1 draw with Group 5 stragglers Armenia.
Sans injured star forward Emannuel Olisadebe, Poland went ahead through in the fourth minute through Radoslaw Kaluzni, but Artur Petrosyan (11th) tied it up for Armenia who later finished the match with eight players. Poland had one man dismissed in the wild affair.
The Poles (5-2-0, 17) can book a berth in Japan/Korea with a win in their next outing, at home to Norway on Sept. 1.
Belarus (12), second in the group, drew 1-all in Norway after Valentin Belkevich’s (23rd) goal was canceled out by Norwegian striker John Carew (80th).
Also in the group, Mark Pembridge (80th) earned Wales a point from a 1-1 tie with Ukraine in Kiev. Hennady Zubov (44th) was the Ukrainian scorer.
Marc Wilmots (10th, 89th pen), Gert Verheyen (60th) and Wesley Sonck (68th) kept Belgium (4-2-0, 14) three points clear of Croatia at the top of Group 6 with a 4-1 romp over San Marino in Serrvalle. Andy Selva (11th) got San Marino’s consolation goal.
Croatia edged Latvia 1-0 in Riga on Bosko Balaban’s strike (39th).
Isr’l put the brakes on Spain’s qualification hopes by holding the Group 7 leaders to a 1-1 draw in Tel Aviv. It took a 63rd-minute Raul effort to prevent a Spanish defeat after Haim Revivo had shot Isr’l ahead (4th).
Spain (14) lead the group by three points over Austria, who have a game in hand. The two clash on Sept. 1.
And in Group 8, Romania decisioned Lithuania 2-1 in Kaunas to move to within four points of idle Italy (16). Adrian Ilie (31st) and Viorel Moldovan (49th) connected for Romania, while Arturas Fomenko (87th) replied for the home side.
There was also a win for Hungary (8), who overwhelmed Georgia 4-1 in Budapest. Janos Matyus (40th), Vilmos Sebok (45th pen), and Attila Korsos (55th, 62nd) tallied. Levan Kobiasvili (77th) got Georgia’s face-saver.