Ireland growing in confidence
SOCCER WORLD CUP QUALIFYING: Rep of Ireland 1 (Keane 5) Cyprus 0 - Attendance 55,000:A QUICK glance at the bare statistics might give the impression Giovanni Trapattoni had already instilled in his Irish side the ability to implement that most famed of Italian game-plans: the single goal lead defended with calm and ruthless efficiency, writes Emmet Malone.
Well, it wasn't quite like that last night at Croke Park, where the Irish defending was as frantic at times as their pursuit of further goals.
At the end of an entertaining encounter, though, Robbie Keane's fifth-minute goal did prove enough to give Trapattoni's men the win and three points they deserved, and few will have left for home grumbling about the manner in which the result was achieved.
The performance was some way short of flawless, but for most of the night Ireland did, as the Italian had said they would, display a confidence in their collective abilities that made the scale of their difficulties against these opponents in the sides' two most recent meetings all the more bewildering.
Before the game the major talking point had been the decision to partner Darron Gibson with Glenn Whelan in central midfield, and while the call could not be said to have been a triumph, neither did it prove a disaster.
Gibson lived up to his billing as one who would link things up with simple but solid passing, while Whelan worked as hard as ever to win the ball and then push those around him forward.
As the second half wore on, though, and the Cypriots began to really chase an equaliser, the pair came under increasing pressure. Had it not been for some good defending across the back four, most outstandingly from Richard Dunne, the lead might well have been snatched away in a fairly thrilling closing period.
Aiden McGeady, Kevin Doyle and Keane all might have added to the margin of Ireland's win during the final few minutes, while Dunne rounded off a good night with a spectacular block when Dimitris Christofi looked set to drive home an equaliser from 10 yards.
The Cypriots, already missing one important player and with another couple carrying knocks, were hit just before kick-off by the loss of left winger Efstathios Aloneftis, who picked up a groin strain during the warm-up.
The 25-year-old had been singled out by Trapattoni on Tuesday as particularly capable of posing a danger to the Irish defence. The manager had suggested that if Paul McShane started at right back, he might have to swap places with John O'Shea if the winger's pace was proving too much of a handful.
As it turned out, the injury forced visiting coach Angelos Anastasiadis into a fourth change to the sided that drew in Tbilisi at the weekend, and that left the Hull City defender to spend most of his night looking after Alexandros Garpozis, something the young Wicklowman did without too much trouble at all.
That the late change had weakened Ireland's opponents became apparent when the home side went in front just five minutes in. Damien Duff's turn was wonderful, but either Garpozis, who had been hurriedly shifted forward from left back, or Lambros Lambrou, who had been hastily drafted into the starting line-up, should have got a tackle in on the Newcastle United winger before he had carried the ball deep into their box. Once there, though, the Dubliner produced a fine, chipped cross to just short of the far post from where Robbie Keane, left entirely to his devices, merrily headed home.
It was a fine start to what was a sparkling night for Duff. The winger reminded us of just how badly he has been missed with a lively display packed with darting runs, insightful passes and free-kicks won.
On the other flank, McGeady also did well. The Celtic player looked as dangerous with the ball at his feet last night as he ever has in an Ireland shirt and, after a couple of half-decent shots, he nearly prompted an own goal with a low, curling cross from the right that Lambrou turned, looping beyond his goalkeeper only for Marios Ilia, under severe pressure from Doyle, to somehow head it off the line.
Doyle, like Keane, worked hard for the cause, chasing back and sometimes tackling hard in an effort to deprive the Cypriots of the opportunity to settle and build from the back. The skipper won particular acclaim at one point for an interception barely 10 metres from the edge of his box, while there was a roar on the occasions his strike partner caught the visiting left back in possession.
The manager's preferred central midfield partnership may indeed, as he said it should, have helped to push the strikers forward, but there were far greater factors going the way of Doyle and Keane. Most important were the glimpses, caused perhaps by the last-minute reshuffle, of confusion among the visiting back four.
For all their superiority, though, the home side were fortunate not to concede when the Cypriots broke after 16 minutes and Michael Constantinou shot from close range against Shay Given before Dimitris Christofi fired over.
It was quite a let-off and a warning of what might happen if the focus of the Irish players, as it did so many times during the last campaign, began to slip. For a lengthy spell in the second half, in fact, it seemed to be happening again, and the crowd grew a little restless with the way Cyprus had been allowed back into things.
Late on, however, the home side rallied as their visitors sought to press forward and began to leave sizeable gaps. Indeed, when McGeady went close with a delicately curled shot just over 15 minutes from the end, it provided reassurance that the Irish still harboured some hopes of adding to their lead. But during the spell that followed the home side got back into their attacking stride and really should have added the second goal that would have been a reward for their combination of application and enterprise over the 90 minutes.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND:Given (Newcastle Utd); McShane (Hull City), O'Shea (Manchester Utd), Dunne (Manchester City), Kilbane (Wigan Ath); McGeady (Celtic), Whelan (Stoke City), Gibson (Manchester Utd), Duff (Newcastle Utd); Doyle (Reading), Keane (Liverpool). Sub:Folan (Hull City) for Doyle (94 mins).
CYPRUS:Giorgadillis (Omonia); Ilia (Apoel), A Constantinou (Anorthosis), Lambrou (Anorthosis), Charalambous (Omonia); Christofi (Omonia), Makridis (Metelurg Donetsk), Maragkos (Apollon), Garpozis (Apollon); Okkas (Omonia), M Constantinou (Iraklis). Subs:Papathanasiou (Apoel) for Lambrou (half-time), Panagi (Anorthosis) for Maragkos (52 mins), Yiasoumi for M Constantinou (79 mins).
Referee:A Tudor (Romania).