Romeo kills an Irish romance
THE GREAT dream is broken, but pride remains largely intact after the Republic of Ireland's collision with one of the enduring powers of world football in the Sarawak Stadium in Kuching yesterday.
Instead of playing Uruguay for the alluring prize of the World Youth Championship, the Irish under-20 team must now content itself with a game against Ghana to decide third and fourth places in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
That, in stark terms, was the cost of moments of crass uncertainty in the Irish defence early in the second half which lead to the goal with which Bernardo Romeo booked Argentina's place in the final.
The cheers of the Malaysian spectators, who made up the bulk of the 8,000 crowd, testified to the bravery of Ireland's desperate attempt to save the game in the closing minutes.
For all the danger Ireland created in and around their penalty area, however, the Argentinian defence kept its nerve. Still, their sense of relief was apparent as the Argentinian manager, Jose Nestor Pekerman, led his players in the direction of their supporters for a post-match salute.
Pekerman was the first to concede that his team hadn't played well. He was also magnanimous enough to acknowledge that this had less to do with fatigue than the manner in which Ireland imposed themselves on the game in the second half.
Earlier, there had been unmistakable evidence of tiredness in the Irish team as the ball was given away needlessly as the first precept of manager Brian Kerr's philosophy was flouted with a regularity which mocked the discipline of the win over Spain.
Undeniably, Ireland were lucky to get to half-time without conceding a goal and the consensus then, among the 100 or so Irish fans, was that some straight talking was needed in the dressing-room.
To their credit, the players, pushing themselves to the very limit of their resilience in their sixth game in 15 days, were subsequently quite magnificent on another day when heat and humidity combined to pose some pertinent questions of character.
Thomas Morgan, occasionally less than precise in his passing in the opening 45 minutes, eventually got to the pitch of the game and as his authority grew in mid-field, the Irish began to find the gaps ever closer to Leonardo Francos goal.
No less than Morgan, Damien Duff struggled to carry out the match plan in the early stages. However, he prospered late on, spreading raw panic into the winners' defence with some surging runs down the left flank.
Unfortunately, the front two, Neale Fenn and Trevor Molloy, so impressive in earlier games, never quite got it together on this occasion and were substituted in the second half when Kerr decreed that fresh legs were needed to capitalise on the better supply from midfield.
It ought to be said that the replacements, Des Baker and Glen Crowe, also struggled, with Crowe wasting a glorious chance in the last minute when, in a situation requiring sharp reflexes, he was blatantly wrong footed and a great opportunity got away.
At the back, the Irish were superb and when the management team of Kerr, Noel O'Reilly and Maurice Price reflect on this adventure, they will find deep assurance in the manner in which players like Derek O'Connor, Colin Hawkins and David Worrell stood and delivered in the most difficult situations.
O'Connor went through the whole spectrum of emotion yesterday, producing at least three astounding saves. In front of him, Hawkins and Worrell were quite superb. Hawkins, entrusted with the responsibility of winning the aerial battle against the danger men in the South American team, Romeo and Pablo Aimar, was seldom less than authoritative.
Sadly, the goal which would have crowned his efforts was denied him just seven minutes from the end. When Alan Kirby floated a corner kick to the edge of the six yard area, the Galway man found himself with space and time to spare. But after doing so much right, his header went marginally astray. In a situation in which the Argentinian cover was scattered, he squandered a great chance of an equaliser.
Alongside him, Worrell is enjoying a great championship, but in many respects the outstanding member of the team yesterday was Robbie Ryan, a team-mate of O'Connor at Huddersfield Town and, on this display, an excellent full back.
Organisation in modern football has been refined to the point where, with every other ploy covered, the biggest threat often comes from players running from the back. Diego Placente and Roman Riquelme were responsible for some of Ireland's biggest worries yesterday.
For their part, the Argentinians were almost caught cold by Ryan's aggressive run after only five minutes. Coming from a position deep inside the Irish half, he went by two defenders and his pass left Kirby in the clear, only to see Franco spread himself for the save.
Essentially, the miss was the product of good goalkeeping rather than poor finishing. Not to be upstaged, O'Connor responded in similar fashion at the other end.
First he denied Placente at point-blank range, in a position in which we had no right to expect a reprieve in the 24th minute. Just three minutes later, his athleticism again foiled Romeo in equally dramatic circumstances.
Sadly, for Ireland, Romeo had the last laugh. After somehow failing to make contact with Diego Quintana's cross as it rolled invitingly across the face of the goal mouth, he swooped to score from close in after the Irish defence had got itself into all kinds of difficulties early in the second half.
Later, O'Connor demanded the admiration of even the opposition with another remarkable save from Sebastian Romero but, generally, the traffic at that time was flowing almost uninterrupted in the direction of the Argentinian goal.
Stephen Murphy, Hawkins and Crowe (twice) all had chances to save the game and the championship for an Irish team which fought like spartans against a team which had almost all the physical advantages.
Ultimately, they failed, but let it not detract from another brave, occasionally inspirational performance by players who have given so much of themselves in the cause of enhancing Ireland's cause on the world stage these last two weeks.