Football: Irish determined to keep dream alive

World Cup Play-Offs: As the Republic of Ireland prepare for tonight's World Cup play-off second leg, Andrew Longmore, in Brussels, finds Mick McCarthy playing all the psychological tricks available to an international manager
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A potent blend of spirit, imagination, optimism, history and downright fantasy will propel Ireland towards qualification for their third successive World Cup finals here tonight.

The mix has worked before and 10,000 Irishmen in the King Baudouin Stadium - and a 1,000 distant bars beside - will believe passionately that it will do so again, despite the evidence of the first leg in Dublin which ended 1-1, but could have spelled the end of Ireland's French dream so soundly were they outclassed by a robust Belgian side.

Managers have to show confidence at these times and Mick McCarthy, Barnsley- born and bred, has summoned much of his coal-miner's belligerence to transform the mood in the Irish camp.

"I've looked at the video of that first game and not seen anything to worry me," McCarthy said yesterday. "We weren't significantly outplayed."

Deep down, McCarthy knows that to be blarney and doubtless much of his psychological preparation has been based on a slogan borrowed from New Labour that things can only get better.

"To be honest, I'm not really interested in what went wrong last time," he said. "We've dealt with all that. I am more interested in what we can do right this time."

Unlike his predecessor, Jack Charlton, who would name his team several days before kick-off in the hope that his opponents would be tempted into some unnecessary tactical tinkering, McCarthy has been playing selectorial cat-and-mouse.

As the best Irish displays in qualifying have come overseas, the key to his thinking could be found in the side who performed so creditably, but without reward, in Romania. With five in midfield - Roy Keane, Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton, Gary Kelly and Mark Kennedy - and David Connolly a lone striker, the Irish came close to perfecting the counter-attacking style preached so strongly by McCarthy since his first day in charge.

Keane is missing through injury and so is Denis Irwin, scorer of Ireland's early goal in Dublin. But Jeff Kenna is a ready-made replacement at full- back and Lee Carsley, one of a number of new recruits, has been pitched into the biggest game of his young life with a brief to subdue Luc Nilis, who followed up his spectacular equaliser in Dublin with the first of PSV's two goals against Newcastle in the Champions' League. "I hope it's third time unlucky for him," Shay Given, the beaten goalkeeper both times, said.

With Houghton passed fit, the injury worries have been handed over to Georges Leekens, the jovial Belgian manager. Marc Wilmots, so influential in Belgium's midfield, has failed a fitness test on a hamstring; Eric van Meir and Nico van Kerckhoven have joined Lorenzo Staelens and Enzo Scifo on the sidelines.

The Brazilian-born Fiorentina striker Luis Oliveira returns from suspension to partner Nilis up front and the Irish are not alone in their bewilderment at the omission from the squad of the temperamental but talented Gilles de Bilde, Nilis's striking partner at PSV.

"The fact they can leave him out shows how many attacking options they have," McCarthy said. The young Bruges pair of Gert Claessens and Eric Deflander come into a team showing five changes from Dublin.

Belgium have qualified for every World Cup finals since 1978 but statistics support the cliche that the game will be very tight. In 13 meetings dating back to 1928, each side has won four, lost four and drawn five, conceding and scoring 23 goals apiece. Something will have to give tonight or it will be golden goal, penalties and Irish prayers all round.

BELGIUM: De Wilde (Sporting Lisbon); DeFlander (Bruges), De Boeck (Anderlecht), Verstraeten (Germinal Ekeren), Vidovic (Mouscron), Verheyen (Bruges), Van der Elst (Bruges), Claessens (Bruges), Boffin (Metz), Oliveira (Fiorentina), Nilis (PSV).

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Given (Newcastle); G Kelly (Leeds), Cunningham (Wimbledon), Harte (Leeds), Kenna (Blackburn); Carsley (Derby), Houghton (Reading), Townsend (Middlesbrough), Staunton (Aston Villa), Kennedy (Liverpool), Connolly (Feyenoord).