Bonus should be made to count

 

So then, another trip to one of Europe's established superpowers and another point in the bag. Okay, we're only two matches into this new World Cup qualification campaign but hey, so far it isn't going too badly at all.

Of course, this was a very different game to the one in Amsterdam last month. For a start, we didn't play nearly as well and we were a little lucky to get what we did out of it. There's no shame, though, in admitting that sometimes you just need a little luck in international football.

It was a strange sort of match, with the Portuguese having so much possession but never forcing Alan Kelly into more than a couple of half decent saves, and Ireland only conceding a goal after they had finally started to look comfortable.

For them to come back from the goal was a remarkable achievement, however, and if the Irish are to pull off what would undoubtedly be a major coup by qualifying from this group then Matt Holland's strike will almost certainly prove vital.

In all honesty, it was hard to see where the goal was going to come from after the home side had taken the lead. Mick McCarthy's changes at half-time had enabled his side to cope better with the Portuguese midfield, but the hope had been that they would get through the game without conceding a goal. When Sergio Conceicao made the breakthrough the suspicion was that, if anything, the home side might go on and add another couple.

The surprise, though, was that Antonio Oliveira's side appeared to be ready to settle for 1-0. Once that became clear, there was always the possibility that one of his players might pull something out of the bag and save the day for McCarthy. Quite how it would come about was hard to anticipate because, while the Irish were doing their best to battle their way forward, there were few enough occasions on which they genuinely threatened to score.

There's simply no way to legislate for the likes of Matt Holland's strike, though, something that the Portuguese will have been reflecting upon ever since the final whistle.

While the Euro 2000 semi-finalists will doubtless feel unlucky to get only a point, they contributed to their own problems by failing to create more clearcut chances. You often get the feeling with the Portuguese that they are determined to create the perfect goal and on Saturday evening they just lacked a killer instinct.

Portugal's five-man midfield did its job to perfection, and they completely dominated in terms of possession and always seemed to have a man to spare. The problem was that the trade-off was costly. Up front Sa Pinto was always an alarming presence, but when the ball did reach him the build-up had almost always gone on long enough to allow Ireland to get bodies back.

The Irish defence again gave a good account of themselves, and young Richard Dunne is once more entitled to feel proud of the way he handled himself. The flip side is - and it's not to take away at all from the way that the Everton player performed - that the Portuguese could have done more to expose his inexperience.

McCarthy clearly, and with good reason, sought to repeat the approach that had worked so well for him in Amsterdam, but this time there was no comparison in the performances in midfield or attack. In the wide positions Kevin Kilbane and Jason McAteer had to do far more defending than a month ago and that, naturally enough, had an effect on how much support they were able to provide to the front two.

While they never really looked like scoring, Niall Quinn and Robbie Keane just about did enough to keep the Portuguese back four on their toes during the first period and even that, given the way we have sometimes performed away from home in the past, was a significant step forward.

Overall, the team's reward was another precious point and another two dropped by one of Ireland's Group Two rivals, but as McCarthy and many of his players have said since the game finished, the important thing now is to build on the achievement.

A draw against Estonia on Wednesday and Ireland will go into Christmas with the three points that would have been the minimum anticipated before they had even kicked a ball last month. As it stands they have two in the bag and the opportunity to build on the advantage in their next four games (the other three are against Cyprus away and Andorra twice). Strong performances in those games and, when the Portuguese and Dutch come to Dublin, they may well be feeling the pressure.

If that happens, and let's not forget that there's a long, long way to go in this group yet, then McCarthy may just be able to drive home his early advantage.

(In an interview with Emmet Malone).