Football: Hard Luc stories for Given

Simon Turnbull reports on the Irish goalkeeper cursed by a Belgian striker
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The message rang with loud, ironic clarity around St James' Park on Wednesday night. "Always Luc on the Bright Side of Life," the supporters of PSV Eindhoven sang in celebration of their team's 2-0 cruise past Newcastle United in Group C of the Champions' League. They emphasised the Luc, lest anyone in the Toon Army's broken stronghold should fail to catch their satirical drift.

Shay Given undoubtedly did. For the second successive Wednesday he had failed to catch a goalscoring shot delivered by Luc Nilis. It was the third encounter between the Irish goalkeeper and the Belgian forward in as many weeks. They have become European football's equivalent of Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray. Next Saturday they meet again, this time in Brussels, in the King Baudouin Stadium, the rebuilt Heysel. It will be another Groundhog Day for them and D-day for the World Cup qualifying ambitions of the Republic of Ireland and Belgium.

It is largely thanks to Given that Mick McCarthy's men start on level terms in the return leg of the play-off. Were it not for his shot-stopping heroics at Lansdowne Road 11 days ago, France 98 would already be a World Cup dream too far for the Republic. The razor-sharp attacking form Nilis produced for PSV on Tyneside, however, could hardly have left Irish eyes smiling. It was his first-half incision through the heart of the Newcastle team - a cutting wall pass with Gilles De Bilde before shooting past Given - which pointed the Dutch champions to victory. And it was the stunning left-foot shot he struck past Given in Dublin which equalised Denis Irwin's early opener.

"He's a great player, isn't he?" Given said, his admiration genuine. "All of us in the Irish team will have to watch him very closely in Brussels." Philippe Albert would concur. The Newcastle defender, now retired from international football, played with Nilis for Anderlecht and for Belgium in the 1994 World Cup finals. "You have to keep an eye on Luc constantly," he said. "He can score from many positions. He's one of the best strikers Belgium has ever had."

At 30, Nilis has become regarded in his homeland as something of a latter- day Paul Van Himst - though not quite as another Benelux Bergkamp, in the estimation of PSV's Dutch playmaker Wim Jonk. "Luc is like Dennis in that he can create something out of nothing and he always shoots at the right moment," Jonk, who has played with Bergkamp for Ajax, Internazionale and Holland, ventured. "But Luc is more of a strange kind of player."

Paul Verbrugghe, football correspondent of the Belgian daily De Standard, caught Jonk's seemingly cryptic drift. "I think," he said, "it would be better to make a comparison with the Matt Le Tissier of two or three years ago, when he was firing in goals from all angles. Like Le Tissier, Luc has always been regarded as a player of great natural talent who has been difficult to fit into a team set-up, particularly the national team. He likes to play behind a main striker with the liberty to drift wide to the left or the right."

Nilis was granted such freedom in Dublin by George Leekens, Belgium's head coach, and is expected to be given creative licence again next Saturday, this time behind Fiorentina's Luis Oliveira, who was suspended for the first leg, with Michael Goossens of Shalke dropping down to join De Bilde on the bench.

It was Dick Advocaat, the PSV coach, who helped Nilis shed his label as a striking enigma, adapting team play to maximise his strengths rather than undermine them with foraging defensive duties. Nilis has been top scorer in his two seasons in the Dutch First Division. Even an ankle operation which sidelined him for two months has failed to blunt a cutting edge that is certain to have attracted interest from prospective buyers.

Nilis, though, insists he is happy in Holland. Eindhoven is just an hour's drive from his home village, Zondhoven, and he is one of the highest- paid players in the Benelux countries, with an annual salary of pounds 800,000. In any case, he says with disarmingly frank modesty that he is not yet the finished article of a finisher that would feature on the shopping list of one of the club superpowers of Europe.

"I have a lack of speed in the first 10 metres," he said, as he prepared to board the PSV team bus late on Wednesday night. "That's why I am not in the absolute top category of striker in Europe." Then again, as Shay Given would testify, few strikers have a sharper eye for an opening, or a quicker delivery than the marksman threatening to leave him and Ireland to "Luc on the Bright Side of Life" in Brussels on Saturday night.