Football: Cascarino sets up play-off ordeal

Republic of Ireland 1 Romania 1
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The Independent Online
So near and yet so far. That was the overriding thought after the Republic of Ireland turned near certainty into fact by duly qualifying for the World Cup play-offs on Saturday. Finishing second to Romania was the easy part, given the quality of the opposition in Group Eight. The hard work starts here.

The play-offs may not prove to be too much of a lottery for the likes of Italy, but for Ireland they threaten to be a real ordeal. The luck of the Irish will be required in full measure if they are to reach the French finals, starting with today's draw for the play-offs in Zurich.

Croatia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Belgium, Ukraine, Hungary, not to mention Italy, none of them are exactly a pushover, particularly when you have lost the driving force of your team. Without Roy Keane it is not easy to envisage Ireland forcing their way past any of those over two legs (29 October and 16 November), but I dare say the manager, Mick McCarthy, will be privately chuffed should they draw the less than formidable Hungarians; worthy heirs to the throne of Puskas and Hidegkuti they are not.

Romania, too, are not quite what they were a few years back but there is still enough genuine quality about them - not least in the still moody, still marvellous Gheorghe Hagi - to make Ireland's draw with them here an honourable one. It was, after all, achieved by what was tantamount to a second XI.

If this had been League football McCarthy would have been hauled up before the FA beaks to explain his under-strength side. There was barely a player whom one could say with any certainty will start in the play-offs. The threat of suspension to eight Irishmen on yellow cards meant that McCarthy was obliged to be cautious about his selection.

As a consequence it made it almost impossible to gauge Ireland's form over and above their ever-willing spirit. Both sides got away with murder in defence, knowing that they could afford to take liberties with impunity.

Romania showed what they were capable with a couple of early incursions and then sat back and allowed Ireland to do their worst. And worst it was at times, Mark Kennedy emphasising the point that a winger of some promise he may be, a striker he is not.

With a few more self-motivated types around like Ray Houghton, captaining the side for the first time in 71 appearances, Ireland might even have won the game. Instead Hagi dealt them what looked a mortal blow with a free-kick from 35 yards which owed as much to the poor positioning of keeper Alan Kelly as the audacity which has become the Romanian's trademark.

But cometh the hour, cometh the big man, Tony Cascarino. Within seconds of passing up on a sitter set up for him by Houghton he threw himself in where it hurts to head home an 84th-minute equaliser. Some Nancy boy he is. It ruined Romania's 100 per cent record and put big "Cas" within one goal of Frank Stapleton's all-time record of 20. What the Irish - and doubtless Stapleton - would not give for him to break that record during the course of the next two games.

Goals: Hagi (53) 0-1; Cascarino (84) 1-1.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): Kelly (Sheffield Utd); Kenna (Blackburn), Breen (Coventry), Babb (Liverpool), Phelan (Everton); McAteer (Liverpool), Houghton (Reading), McLoughlin (Portsmouth), Carsley (Derby); Cascarino (Nancy), Kennedy (Liverpool). Substitutes: D Kelly (Tranmere) for McLoughin, 62; Evans (Southampton) for Cascarino, 85; Fleming (Middlesbrough) for Phelan, 90.

ROMANIA (4-4-2): Stelea (Salamanca); Petrescu (Chelsea), Ciubutariu (National Bucharest), Dobos (AEK), Galca (Espanyol); Selymes (Anderlecht), Munteanu (Cologne) Gheorghe Popescu, Hagi; Ilie (all Galatasaray), Moldovan (Grasshopper Zurich). Substitutes: Filipescu (Galatasaray) for Moldovan, 62; Lacatus (Steaua Bucharest) for Ilie, 76; Dumitrescu (Atalanta)for Hagi, 86.

Referee: N Levnikov (Russia).

Man of the match: Cascarino.

Attendance: 31,300.

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