Heavy work of a Light job

 

It is just short of five years now since this crumbling giant of a stadium in the heart of Lisbon was the scene of so much Irish despair. A 3-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light sent Portugal rolling on to Euro '96, while Ireland were left with a play-off at Anfield where they were routed once again. Worse, it was here, in the driving rain, that the team Jack built finally began to crumble.

On Saturday, it was an altogether different story. For 16 minutes, it appeared that the Irish would again return home empty-handed, but then a stunning second-half equaliser from Ipswich midfielder Matt Holland cancelled out an earlier strike by Sergio Conceicao. It earned his side a draw that, on the balance of play, they scarcely deserved.

Long used to clean sheets and full points at the home of their most famous club, Benfica, the hosts made no secret that they expected a repeat of 1995. The performances at their latest European Championship finals suggested that they might not be disappointed.

But the Irish had cause for some confidence themselves on their return to Lisbon after the fine 2-2 draw against the Dutch. As it turned out on Saturday, Jack Charlton's successor got another night to remember, his opposite number a draw that will be hard to forget.

It wasn't a great Irish performance, but then heroics without points offer only the makings of hard-luck stories and Mick McCarthy has enough of those to dine out on after his previous two qualification campaigns. This time, while the Portuguese had the lion's share of the scoring chances, they went away feeling that they had taken less from the contest than they had deserved.

Most painful of all for coach Antonio Oliveira, perhaps, was the realisation that the group battle is shaping up to be a little bit more than a straightforward duel with Louis van Gaal.

Oliveira, who was also in charge for the win in 1995, was probably starting to get that feeling by the time he met with his players at the halfway point in the game. By then, Figo and company had already had 10 attempts on goal without once forcing Alan Kelly into a serious save.

At that stage, Ireland's problems were manifold with the midfield failing to hold onto the ball, the attack struggling to make their presence felt and the defence having to resort, more than once, to scrambling the ball away from around the edges of their six-yard box.

With the home side moving far too easily through their visitors, McCarthy sought to reorganise his side's challenge at the break.

On came Holland for his fifth cap and off went Niall Quinn who, a day after his 34th birthday, had once come close to connecting with a promising header but otherwise failed to make the desired impact.

After an initial improvement, the Irish showed signs of losing their concentration just short of the hour. Twice in quick succession possession was given away in dangerous positions and when Jason McAteer, amongst the strongest Irish performers in the first half, completed the hat-trick the mistake was ruthlessly punished.

Rui Costa first found Conceicao with a brilliant cross-field ball and the midfielder then slipped inside Ian Harte before slipping his shot between Richard Dunne and Kelly towards the bottom left corner. Really, that should have been that, but the Portuguese made the fatal error of easing up a little.

For much of the night, they had given a team that prides itself on its ability to work hard and close opponents down a lesson in how to do both. But when, with just over a quarter of an hour remaining, Damien Duff was left with an acre of room to run into down the right, there was an immediate suspicion that they might be playing with fire.

Duff played the ball short to Roy Keane who, in turn, found Holland and, having also been given time and space, the 26-year-old unleashed a spectacular shot that soared past Quim and into the goal.

The Portuguese quickly tried to regain the upper-hand, but it was irrevocably lost. There were nervous moments over the closing stages, but the Irish, thanks in part to Roy Keane, Mark Kinsella and, once again, Richard Dunne, held on.

Afterwards, there was little doubt that the draw had banished the painful memories of five years ago. Already, however, the talk was of Wednesday when the task will be to ensure that Ireland's "next big match" is not a rerun of those goalless qualifiers from the last World Cup campaign against Iceland and Lithuania.

Ireland: Kelly (Blackburn Rovers); Carr (Tottenham Hotspur), Breen (Coventry City), Dunne (Everton), Harte (Leeds United); McAteer (Blackburn Rovers), Roy Keane (Manchester United), Kinsella (Charlton), Kilbane (Sunderland); Robbie Keane (Inter Milan), Quinn (Sunderland). Subs: Holland (Ipswich) for Quinn (half-time), Duff for McAteer (69 mins), Finnan for Robbie Keane (84).

Portugal: Quim (SC Braga); Beto (Sporting), Couto (Lazio), Jorge Costa (Porto), Dimas (Sporting); Vidigal (Napoli), Rui Costa (Fiorentina); Conceicao (Parma), Joao Pinto (Sporting), Figo (Real Madrid); Sa Pinto (Sporting). Subs: Simao (Barcelona) for Joao Pinto and Pauleta (Bordeaux) for Sa Pinto (78 mins), Capucho (Porto) for Dimas (88).

Referee: Atanas Ouzounov (Bulgaria).