Football: Cascarino keeps Irish on course

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Albania. . . . . . . . .1

Republic of Ireland. . .2

THE Republic of Ireland moved closer to their American dream and a place in the World Cup finals when Tony Cascarino's second-half header, just two minutes after his entrance as substitute here yesterday, wiped out the bitter experience of trailing to one of the weakest nations.

Cascarino's 77th-minute winner came via Steve Staunton's corner, and it was the Aston Villa man who had equalised and helped Jack Charlton's team to a position as joint leaders in Group Three with Spain. Both have 11 points though Ireland have played a game less.

The result will also fortify them for the last two legs of their summer mystery tour around the Balkan and Baltic states which takes them to Latvia and Lithuania over the next three weeks.

With Ireland remaining unbeaten in the campaign Charlton, unsurprisingly, pronounced himself 'absolutely delighted', adding: 'We must be favourites to go through now. We start next season at home to Lithuania and if things go OK we may not then need to worry about the game with Spain.'

The Irish manager had feared what impact Paul McGrath's absence would have on their defence. The answer came after only five minutes and in brutal fashion.

The Albanian skipper, Sulejan Demollari, was clearly the one the hosts were looking to for a measure of control and invention, and his long ball after only five minutes forced McGrath's deputy, Alan Kernaghan, to turn in frantic pursuit.

Socal Kushta was after it too. His speed burned off the big Middlesbrough stopper and his right-foot finish was struck with such power that Pat Bonner was comfortably beaten at his left-hand post. It was only the Albanians' fifth goal in nine qualifying ties.

Charlton's men needed a minute or two to take in the impact of what was only the second goal they have conceded in the campaign, but a foul on Andy Townsend seven minutes later opened the way for an equaliser.

The range was inviting for Steve Staunton and clearly Albania had not been forewarned. The defensive wall broke and Staunton's hammer blow with his left drove its way emphatically into Muca's net.

While enjoying plenty of possession thereafter, the Irish were unable to make it count to any degree, their passing nowhere as crisp or as penetrating as we have seen of late though the pitch was an unfriendly one. Ireland's frustrations grew when in first-half injury time Staunton was booked for being too hasty with another free-kick.

Muca came between Ireland and the lead again in the 64th minute with a spectacular save, diving to his right to repel Roy Keane's fierce effort. Then, from Terry Phelan's corner, he was able to push Niall Quinn's header onto the bar.

ALBANIA: Muca (Partizan Tirana); Zmijani (Ajaccio), Shulku, (Partizan Tirana), Schala, Vata (Celtic), Lekbello (Aris Salonika), Kushta, Peqini (Elbasani), Raklli (Freiburg), Milori, Demollari (Dinamo Bucharest). Substitutes: Fortuzi (Dinamo Tirana) for Zmijani, 56; Bozgo (Tomori Berat) for Raklli, 76.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Bonner (Celtic); Irwin (Manchester Utd), Phelan (Manchester City), Kernaghan (Middlesbrough), Moran (Blackburn Rovers), Keane (Nottingham Forest), Townsend (Chelsea), Houghton (Aston Villa), Quinn (Manchester City), Aldridge (Tranmere), Staunton (Aston Villa). Substitute: Cascarino (Chelsea) for Aldridge, 75.

Referee: W Cinciripini (Italy).

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: WORLD CUP GROUP THREE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Spain 8 4 3 1 16 2 11 Rep of Ireland 7 4 3 0 12 2 11 Denmark 7 3 4 0 5 1 10 Northern Ireland 8 3 2 3 9 10 8 Lithuania 8 2 3 3 8 12 7 Latvia 9 0 5 4 3 15 5 Albania 9 1 2 6 5 16 4 -----------------------------------------------------------------