Cautionary twist in the tail


SOCCER: So now we know. Caution kills. Ireland went to Tel Aviv on Saturday night and apart from one lovely moment of abandon in the fourth minute they played like a team of grey-suited actuaries, measuring the odds and eschewing the risks. And in the end just when all the doors had been locked and the alarms set, what happened? The roof fell in.

The damage? Well it was all pretty complicated before it even began. Israel in a European qualifying group like a small, nervy cat thrown in with prize pigeons. The French in decline. The Swiss improving. Everyone vying for the seat at the top of the room.

Then Ireland came to Tel Aviv and in a game bookended by two fine goals lost the chance of a win. Lost it to a late goal scored by an Arab, one Abbas Suan. Not something anyone had foreseen.

"He is Jewish, he is Jewish," chanted the delirious Tel Aviv crowd.

"I scored for all of Israel. Happy Purim!" said Abas.

There were no reports of people laying down their weapons all along the West Bank though, and even if there had been, the permutations of Qualifying Group Four had to be teased out first.

Saturday's draw, while disappointing in isolation, keeps Ireland in contention as the battle to qualify for next year's World Cup reaches the halfway point.

Within a couple of hours, heartening news arrived from Paris. France and Switzerland had drawn in a scoreless game. The French forward David Trezeguet had committed acts of bourgeois wastefulness which would have had him guillotined in different times.

So it is that this morning Ireland, France and Israel all share the top of the table with nine points each. If Ireland are feeling gloomy, well imagine the mood of the French, who have suffered three scoreless draws at home in Paris. What is the opposite of panache?

Switzerland lie fourth with one point less, having played just four games, one fewer than their three main rivals. Quite a bunch as we come around the turn and in to the home straight.

"It's disappointing to lose the goal so late," said manager Brian Kerr, "but before the match we felt it would have been a fantastic result to get a win and a good result to get a draw. So we got a good result."

That didn't quite tell the entire story. The Israelis will reflect on the three other occassions in the game when they should have converted big fat goal chances. The draw and the late manner of it, which felt like a cheeky bit of larceny, had cheered them greatly, but they were inclined upon reflection to feel they should have won the match.

"I don't know how I felt about the Irish style of play," smiled their coach, Avrahim Grant, when asked if the visitors hadn't been a little too timid for their own good. "But I thought we deserved to win. We deserved to take all the points."

He had takers for a polite argument on that point.

"We played with great composure for most of the match," said Kerr. "It's a shame we lost the two points. We move on. Our situation is that we have the home games in our favour, although we have two awkward away games to come.

"The results haven't changed things an awful lot. I'm sure France and Switzerland are saying the same."

The loss of a goal right at the death brought back jarring memories of similar mishaps late in games during Mick McCarthy's tenure. The emotions were the same too.

"Yes. There was a sense of disappointment losing the goal as late as we did," said Kerr. "But we know that's football. In the past, several teams that I've had have scored goals in the last minute and you come out of the match delighted to get a point.

"There was an air of annoyance and frustration around. We felt they had played well and (we had) handled most of their attacking ploys.

"We'd dealt with that. When the result of the other game came in and it was a draw - which we had suggested in advance would be the best outcome for the group - well it went to prove again how tight it is.

"It's likely to go to the last weekend to decide the first and second places and we need to be in there when that comes about."

Ireland play China tomorrow at Lansdowne Road in a low-key friendly before resuming their World Cup campaign in June with a home game against Israel.

For their part the Israelis play France in Tel Aviv this Wednesday.

It's complicated. It will stay that way till the fat lady warbles.