Time to swoop for goals

 

Traditional priorities will be starkly reversed when the Republic of Ireland seek to continue their renaissance with a win over Malta at Lansdowne Road this evening.

Home advantage notwithstanding, Irish teams have seldom enjoyed the luxury of relaxing their fixation with survival to play the type of adventurous football that puts the emphasis on the search for goals.

This meeting with one of the less fashionable teams in the international arena offers an opportunity to do just that, and the spectacle promises to be both exciting and enlightening.

Ostensibly, Mick McCarthy is approaching the assignment with the same philosophy which earned his team an important win over Croatia at the start of their European programme last month.

"We shall take precisely the same attitude into the game, defending carefully when we have to and getting players forward in numbers when we have the chance at the other end of the pitch."

That is the theory, but how it eventuates in practice is anybody's guess as Malta's coach Josip Ilic prepares to put the emphasis on defence, in the hope that he can frustrate the opposition sufficiently to catch them on the break.

Malta are used to the long, forlorn fight against the odds. And Ilic was merely echoing the sentiments of all his predecessors in the job when he addressed the media after supervising a training session at Lansdowne Road.

"Our first aim is to make certain we do not lose any goals," he said. "The Irish are a strong, physical team, and my players are tired after the game against Croatia on Saturday.

"Everybody expects us to lose but that, I think, is to our advantage. The pressure is on the Irish to attack and if we can hold out long enough, they may become disorganised."

Ilic, a Yugoslav national who played much of his football in Spain, can scarcely be reassured by the statistics Malta take into the game. In 204 fixtures they have won only 26 times, securing 123 goals and conceding 492, precisely four times as many.

Additionally, he must make do on this occasion without his outstanding player, Carmel Busuttil, the only survivor from that memorable evening at Dalymount Park in 1983 when Ireland rewrote the record books with an 8-0 win.

Busuttil, who has amassed an impressive total of 21 goals in his 88 international appearances, is out for personal reasons and to his loss can be added that of Mario Muscat, Malta's first-choice goalkeeper who was injured during the 4-1 defeat by Croatia at the weekend.

With good reason, Ilic fears for the welfare of the part-time players, who make up the bulk of his squad, and worries about their ability to cope with the physical challenge of two big games in the space of just four days.

Most of the Irish team, by contrast, have not seen active service for 10 days, an unexpected break which should ensure that fatigue will not be a problem on this occasion.

In relation to fitness, the omens are encouraging for Ireland. Jeff Kenna, named at right back in the absence of Denis Irwin, didn't train yesterday because of a strain, but the decision to rest him was described as purely precautionary.

Throughout his international career the Blackburn player has been deployed as a dependable defender with restricted licence to attack. This, however, may well be the occasion when his job specifications are revised to enable him to get forward more often.

Malta will, almost certainly, confront their opposition with 10 players behind the ball, depending on sheer weight of numbers and the ability of replacement goalkeeper, Reggi Cini to grow tall on his unexpected summons to arms, to ensure that their net remains undisturbed.

In that situation, Ireland's strategy will be to attack down the flanks, with both full backs, Kenna and Steve Staunton, arriving late to link with the players directly in front of them, Jason McAteer and Damien Duff.

For Duff, a player in some danger of being dropped for the postponed game in Belgrade after being withdrawn against Croatia, it is a chance to indulge the skills which have earned him such a high rating at Blackburn.

And his sense of opportunity will be shared by Robbie Keane as he seeks to become the youngest player ever to score for Ireland, an honour which still stands in the name of John Giles on his international debut, just five days short of his 19th birthday, against Sweden in 1959.

No less than Duff, Keane suffered in the white heat of the game against Croatia. Now, in tandem with Niall Quinn, he is offered the prospect of setting up a partnership which could see Ireland through the remainder of their programme in this championship.

Speaking of the possibilities offered by this alliance of maturity and precocious youth, McCarthy said: "I'm excited. Niall's strength and experience and Robbie's flair can upset any defence, not just the Maltese, but Croatia and Yugoslavia as well."

With Roy Keane and Mark Kinsella to provide the support down the middle, the front two are unlikely to suffer the deprivations of many Ireland forwards in the past. On their ability to deliver - and deliver early - may hinge the plot of the game.