Spirits may have improved but quality takes downturn


COUNTDOWN TO THE WORLD CUP/Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1 Rep of Ireland 2: Spirirts may well have been lifted within the Irish camp by Thursday's dramatic departure of Roy Keane, but expectations are a very different matter.

With the Manchester United midfielder back at home, the squad has been spared any further internal strife with its most volatile character, but gone too is the country's most accomplished talent.

That fact that was brought firmly home on Saturday in Izumo where Mick McCarthy's side won, but unconvincingly, in front of a 10,000-strong crowd that must have come to the game expecting a good deal better.

In the normal course of events, little significance would have been attached to the way McCarthy's side performed in what was always intended to be a fairly low-key friendly against a J-League side specially hired in for the day.

With the team's driving force absent, though, and most neutral observers here firmly believing that the Republic's hopes of a place in the second round have gone with him, this seemed a good time for those who have stayed on to show that they're a good deal more than a one man band.

Things started brightly enough. Through the opening 10 minutes or so a team containing nine likely starters against Cameroon this weekend looked capable of running riot against Hiroshima. It didn't last, though, and, over the 80 that remained, they rarely looked genuinely impressive.

A couple of goals from Robbie Keane - one headed in from close range after Steven Reid's corner had been allowed to sail straight through the six-yard box, the other slotted home neatly enough after Niall Quinn's knock down - were enough to provide a win and put a bit of a gloss on things.

But the ease with which Susumu Oki had earlier given the locals a lead highlighted the difficulties encountered by a defence that has, over the next few weeks, much tougher times to come.

McCarthy's biggest gripe at the end, though, concerned a clumsy challenge by Pensee Bilong Michel that looked for a while as though it might end Jason McAteer's hopes of starting the team's opening game this weekend.

Bilong, himself a member of Cameroon's squad at France'98 claims to have been overlooked for this World Cup on the somewhat ironic basis that he plays his club football in Japan where it has been difficult for manager Winfried Schafer to get along to watch him.

But, when he connected heavily with the Sunderland midfielder's knee as he attempted to block a cross, he looked to have found a way to serve his nation's cause even from the fringes.

To be fair, the big defender was all apologies afterwards. He even offered one to Ian Harte as he left the Irish dressing-room and when the Irishman pointed out that he had the wrong man, Bilong, to the amusement of the onlookers, put the case of mistaken identity down to the fact that, to him, the Irish all look the same.

McAteer's injury, as it turned out, was not nearly as bad as initially feared and his early departure gave Reid the chance to provide further evidence of his considerable potential.

It was through the centre, however, that McCarthy felt afterwards that things had gone best.

"Certainly (Damien) Duff and Robbie (Keane) started well and it was good to see Robbie get the goals," he said. "I thought Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella showed again what a good partnership they are, which was encouraging, and (Steve) Staunton was very strong at the back."

Staunton was certainly on form, leading the defence with the sort of conviction that will be sorely needed in Ireland's group games and showing again his ability to cut team-mates loose with well-judged long-passes into space.

Beside him, Richard Dunne struggled to get on top of things to anything like the same extent and there were fairly forgettable afternoons too from Ian Harte and Kevin Kilbane, both of whom picked up minor knocks over the course of the game.

Through the second half, McCarthy took the opportunity to have another look at the players who might be required to provide him with cover.

And so Gary Kelly switched to left back, Andy O'Brien replaced him on the right side of the defence and David Connolly got another run on the left wing. The Leeds United man again did well while neither of the others looked particularly out of place.

What the manager could really do with, of course, is another midfielder of his departed captain's calibre to slot in.

As the song goes, though, there's only one Roy Keane.

HIROSHIMA: Ozaki; Komano, Kawashima, Bilong, Tulio, Nakamura; Oki, Sawada, Morisaki; Kubo, Fujimoto. Subs: Mogi for Kubo and Sada for Takahashi (half-time), Hayashi for Ozaki (62 mins), Matsushita for Fujimoto (70), Kono for Nakamura (81).

IRELAND: Given (Newcastle); Kelly (Leeds), Dunne (Manchester City), Staunton (Aston Villa), Harte (Leeds); McAteer (Sunderland), Kinsella (Charlton), Holland (Ipswich Town), Kilbane (Sunderland); Keane (Leeds), Duff (Blackburn). Subs: Reid (Millwall) for McAteer (38 mins); Breen (unattached) for Dunne, O'Brien (Newcastle) for Harte (both half-time); Quinn (Sunderland) for Kilbane, Kiely (Charlton) for Given (both 62); Connolly (Wimbledon) for Duff (70); Morrison (Crystal Palace) for Keane (78).