Football: Kennedy masters Yugoslavs

Republic of Ireland 2 Yugoslavia 1
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The Independent Online
THE REPUBLIC of Ireland last night took pole position in the Balkan Grand Prix, otherwise known as Group Eight of the European Championship qualifiers, accelerating ahead of Yugoslavia by deservedly defeating them in a thrilling match and also Croatia, whom they tackle on Saturday. A win in Zagreb would make them the firm favourites to take the chequered flag, though a draw followed by victory in Malta next Wednesday would be satisfactory.

Yet Yugoslavia, having beaten the Irish 1-0 in Belgrade last November, remain in contention. Indeed, if the teams were to finish level on points, they would be in front by virtue of having scored an away goal in the head-to-head meetings.

That was one of the few negatives on an exhilarating evening, the others being injuries which are likely to keep Roy Keane and Denis Irwin out of the next two games. Sir Alex Ferguson will not be thrilled at getting his players back with a hamstring and Achilles strain respectively, 10 days before Manchester United's fixture at Liverpool, especially after having agreed to release them from the match against Newcastle on Monday. But he has the deep gratitude of a Dublin crowd, of whom Yugoslavia's coach, Vujadin Boskov, said: "I've never seen supporters like it anywhere in the world."

The Republic's Mick McCarthy also praised the home supporters. "The crowd and the team interacted," he said. "It was a great performance but I'm keeping my feet firmly on the ground."

Keane's last act on a clinging, humid night was to lay the ball square for Mark Kennedy, 30 yards out, who simply looked up and smacked in the winning goal a whisker beneath the crossbar. That was in the 67th minute. Fourteen minutes earlier Irwin had sent a long diagonal cross via the faintest of flicks from Niall Quinn for Robbie Keane to confirm his new confidence as a Premiership player with a smart low drive.

Three much firmer touches from Quinn in the next few minutes might have settled the game before Yugoslavia recovered. The Sunderland man put a header too high, almost lobbed the goalkeeper and then headed wide.

On the hour, however, the counter proved productive at last for the visitors as Predrag Mijatovic was allowed to deliver a cross similar to Irwin's and Dejan Stankovic headed across and beyond Alan Kelly.

Kennedy then set Lansdowne roaring again and the din continued unabated to the final whistle of a fixture first scheduled for three months ago.

The normally hospitable crowd had given a mixed reception to the depleted Yugoslavs, who arrived without six regulars, including their veteran captain Dragan Stojkovic. Dejan Savicevic buzzed round behind the two strikers for a while but was not fully fit either and was eventually withdrawn after Keane's goal.

Yugoslavia looked skilful before they tired and Blackburn's Kelly was forced into an outstanding double save to prevent his side falling behind early on. Playing his first senior game of the season, he showed no sign of rust in, first, turning Dejan Govedarica's header aside, then somehow reaching a fierce shot by the full-back Slobodan Komljenovic.

Kennedy, one of two wingers deployed in a bold attacking formation, twice came inside on to his favourite left foot to shoot past the post and the industrious Mark Kinsella was not far wide either as the game built slowly towards the real drama.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): Kelly (Blackburn Rovers); Irwin (Manchester United), Cunningham (Wimbledon), Breen (Coventry), Staunton (Liverpool); Kennedy (Manchester City), Kinsella (Charlton Athletic), Roy Keane (Manchester United), Kilbane (West Bromwich Albion); Quinn (Sunderland), Robbie Keane (Coventry City). Substitutes: Carr (Tottenham) for Irwin, 65; Carsley (Blackburn) for Roy Keane, 70; Cascarino (Nancy) for Quinn, 78.

YUGOSLAVIA (4-3-1-2): Kocic (Red Star Belgrade); Komljenovic (Kaiserslautern), Djukic (Valencia), Mihajlovic (Lazio), Bolic (Salernitana); Govedarica (RKC Waalwijk), Nadj (Real Oviedo), D Stankovic (Lazio); Savicevic (Rapid Vienna); Mijatovic (Fiorentina), Milosevic (Real Zaragoza). Substitutes: Drulovic (Porto) for Savicevic, 54; Saveljic (Bordeaux) for Mihajlovic, 69; Kovacevic (Juventus) for Nadj, 75.

Referee: P Collina (Italy).

Group Eight table, page 27