This may not be the end

 

Soccer Analyst Mark Lawrenson If Ireland beat Spain tomorrow, it will mark them as the outstanding side in our soccer history, surpassing the achievements of Euro '88, Italia '90 and USA '94. It infuriates me that Mick McCarthy still isn't getting the accolades he deserves. Quite simply, he is the best manager that any Republic of Ireland team has ever had.

I'm not denigrating what Jack Charlton accomplished, but there is no doubt that he had more outstanding individual talent; Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath, John Aldridge and Ray Houghton to name but a few.

Under Jack, we had Plan A and when that failed we reverted to Plan A. This team offers so much more in terms of Plans B and C. We pass the ball, there is a nice shape to the team and we continue to play good football even when we fall behind in matches.

There is that inner resolve and tremendous self-belief. That doesn't come about by accident. McCarthy deserves far more credit than he is receiving from mischief-makers back in Ireland. Some should be ashamed of the fallout from the Roy Keane affair.

When you consider the group from which we qualified just to get to Japan and South Korea, and then go on to examine the way we progressed from the initial stages here to a game with Spain, it is little short of phenomenal.

I honestly did not think we could get out of the group in Japan but we did. However, it is the way that we have played in the process that has given me the greatest satisfaction. It's a very simple gameplan but hugely effective and good to watch to boot.

I can't see any need to change the team at this juncture. One of the most positive aspects of retaining the same team revolves around the fundamentals of picking up at corners and knowing what your team-mates do and where they are during a game. That understanding is built up over time.

There is no confusion and every player is aware of his job. If necessary, McCarthy has the option of throwing on Niall Quinn, but it would be foolish to turn your back on a system that has got you this far.

Inevitably there will be discussion about Ian Harte's discomfort but I would advocate retaining him - we do not have any really viable alternatives.

There is little to be gained from breaking up the central defensive partnership and moving Steve Staunton to left back. Gary Kelly is not naturally left-footed, so moving him there would upset the balance of the team.

Harte isn't blessed with great pace and he has struggled in a couple of the games, but I still wouldn't drop him for this match when faced with the alternatives.

People have pointed out that his confidence is at an all-time low but you don't get that back by sitting on the bench. What you have to hope for is that he plays through his problems. McCarthy has persevered with players in the past and been rewarded for his faith. Shay Given, Gary Breen, Steve Staunton and Harte himself would not be present in the squad if Mick succumbed to the whims of sections of the supporters.

McCarthy's ability to motivate and extract the best from his players shouldn't be underestimated. When you think about the number of players that have suffered a loss of form during the past 18 months, it just makes the manager's achievements all the more staggering.

The game against Spain is another step up the ladder. As against any top quality team, concentration at both ends of the pitch will be paramount. We are unlikely to make the same number of chances as we have done in previous matches, so Robbie Keane and Damien Duff must snap them up.

I expect it to be a very tight game and my gut feeling is that it will go to extra-time and penalties. Spain will be aware that this is a potential banana skin. They have excellent individual players but even on a bad day we have shown that we are a very tough side to beat.

If it does go to penalties then I will be the one behind the sofa asking my three-year-old what's going on. Spain are better individually, but it is the collective excellence that matters.

Once again Mattie Holland and Mark Kinsella will be asked to protect the back four, while Duff and Keane will be looking to run at their markers.

It will be exceptionally tight but if the players keep faith in the system and each other, then this incredible journey does not have to stop tomorrow.

In an interview with John O'Sullivan