Playing without their two best strikers, the Zinedane Zidane-inspired French crushed Cyprus 4-0 in Paris to win Group 4 and qualify for Germany ’06.
The game was over as a contest before half time after a salvo by Zidane (29th), Sylvain Wiltord (31st) and Vikash Dhorasoo (44th). Ludovic Giuly delivered the coup de grace moments from time.
Les Bleus (5-0-5, 20) finished three points ahead of an Irish side left ruing two decisive moments against Israel during the 13-month race: striker Abbas Souan’s agonizingly late equalizer last March that denied the Republic full points in Tel Aviv, and Avi Nimni’s twice taken penalty that allowed the Israelis to peg back a 2-0 deficit in that infamous Lansdowne Road meltdown last June.
Those four lost points in retrospect would have sufficed to win the group way before last Wednesday’s win-or-bust showdown with the Swiss that ended goalless.
So where as a golden generation of French players prepare for their likely swansong in Germany next year and the Swiss head for the playoffs against Turkey, it’s downtime for Irish international soccer until the start of the Euro ’08 qualifiers next fall.
It would have been Ireland vs. Turkey in the playoffs (Nov. 12 to 16) had the Republic won last Wednesday. Friday’s draw in Zurich matched the Swiss against the 2002 semi-finalists, who finished second in Group 2. The other playoff pairings are Slovakia-Spain and the Czech Republic-Norway.
Northern Ireland missed a glut of chances before forward Rene Aufhauser (44th, 90th) struck at the end of both halves to give Austria a 2-0 win in Vienna.
Waltzing on top of the football world just a month ago after beating Azerbaijan and eventual Group 6 winners England within the space of four days, Lawrie Sanchez’ men fell back to their old ways in their final qualifier.
David Healy, on target in the 3-2 loss to Wales four days earlier, was the main culprit, spurning numerous opportunities including one-on-ones with Austrian goalie Jurgen Macho in the 13th and 26th minutes.
The North was duly punished for its wastefulness a minute from the interval when midfielder Markus Schopp picked out the unmarked Aufhauser who beat Maik Taylor between the posts from close range.
He scored again on the stroke of fulltime after defender Damien Johnson and Austria’s Emanuel Pogatetz were red-carded (75th), and James Duff had a header cleared off the line (80th).
Healy’s substitute, Steve Jones, almost pulled one back in stoppage time only for the Swiss to scramble the ball off the line again.
It was a disappointing end to the qualifiers after the back-to-back Belfast victories. Northern Ireland’s two wins, five losses and three draws (9 points) were good enough to earn them a fourth place finish out of six teams.
England, 2-1 victors over Poland at Old Trafford on goals by Michael Owen (44th) and Frank Lampard (80th), topped Group 6 a point ahead of the Poles (24) whose Tomasz Frankowski (45th) scored.
Ryan Giggs’ double in Cardiff handed fifth place finishers Wales a 2-0 result over Azerbaijan.
Scotland’s resurgence continued, albeit too late, as they blanked Slovenia 3-0 in Celje in their most impressive result of the qualifiers.
Darren Fletcher (4th), James McFadden (47th) and Paul Hartley (84th) hauled the Scots (3-3-4, 13) into a third place finish in Group 5, ten points behind winners Italy who signed off 2-1 against bottom team Moldova in Rome.
Christian Vieri (70th) and Alberto Gilardino (85th) saw off the visitors, whose Alexandr Gatcan (75th) scored.
Also in the Group 5, Thorstein Helstad’s 70th minute effort in Minsk secured a 1-0 win and runners-up spot for Norway (5-2-3, 18) who face the Czech Republic in the playoffs.
At the conclusion of the formal qualifying competition last week, 27 countries had booked places in the 32-nation World Cup finals.
The remaining five finalists will be know after next month’s two-legged playoffs in Europe (which will yield three additional qualifiers) and the deciders between Asian zone survivors Bahrain and CONCACAF four place finishers Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay (South America) against Oceania envoys Australia.
Here are the teams already in: United States, Mexico, Costa Rica (CONCACAF); Germany, England, Poland, Holland, Ukraine, Italy, Portugal, Croatia, Sweden, France, Serbia & Montenegro (Europe); Angola, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Tunisia (Africa).
Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay (South America) and Japan, Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia (Asia).
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