Football: Baking heat is threat to Irish

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THE STAND-IN captain Steve Staunton is one of four Republic of Ireland players battling for fitness ahead of their crucial European Championship qualifier against Malta here tomorrow.

The centre-backs Kenny Cunningham (hip), Gary Breen (groin) and the midfielder Mark Kinsella (knee) are manager Mick McCarthy's other casualties after two tough qualifiers in four days against Yugoslavia and Croatia.

"It is no coincidence that all four players took part in both games," McCarthy said. "None of them have been able to train since we arrived in Malta. But I'm hopeful they will all be ready."

Malta are looking for their first points in the competition - in their eighth and final game. On paper it looks a breeze for Ireland, who crushed the Maltese 5-0 in Dublin in October. But a breeze is just what is lacking on this baking hot holiday isle, with temperatures hovering around 96 degrees, and they will be going into the game at the end of an exhausting schedule.

McCarthy has taken media flak for leaving out Robbie Keane, Mark Kennedy and Niall Quinn against Croatia in Zagreb on Saturday. But he said: "I didn't want to jeopardise their chances of being fit for the Malta game because six points from three matches is six points wherever you get them from."

McCarthy's negative 4-5-1 strategy would have worked but for a stoppage- time slip which let in Arsenal's Davor Suker to grab the only goal. That knocked the Republic off the top of Group Eight, and Yugoslavia's 3-1 home win against Macedonia on Sunday night dropped McCarthy's team down to third place. However, they are still certain to make the runners-up play-offs if they take maximum points from their remaining two games, although the last one is next month in Macedonia, where Ireland suffered one of the most humiliating defeats in their history in a World Cup qualifier two years ago.

It was avenged with a win in Dublin in June and after a perfect home record in the qualifiers McCarthy said: "If we get six points from these last two away games I still believe we will top the group.

"I know Yugoslavia will automatically qualify above us if we both win our last two games but I don't think there is any chance they will beat Croatia in Zagreb.

"I believe our destiny is in our own hands and we will qualify with six more points - but they won't be given to us. We'll have to earn them."

McCarthy, who will recall all his front-rank strikers and go for quick goals, has had another boost with Uefa's confirmation that Sunderland's Quinn was not booked in the Croatia game and that the yellow card referee Manuel Diaz Vega showed was actually for the home defender Igor Stimac.

But four other Republic players - Lee Carsley, Alan McLoughlin, Kevin Kilbane and Staunton - received bookings against Croatia and that leaves six Irishmen one card away from suspension for the Macedonia match because Robbie Keane and Kinsella were also cautioned against them in the win in Dublin more than a year ago.

"There's nothing we can do about it but I didn't think we warranted any of the bookings on Saturday," said McCarthy. "We must use caution and not make silly challenges when opponents are turning away from us."