Football: McCarthy cautious of Croatia cut and thrust

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The Independent Online
A YEAR AGO to the day Denis Irwin and Roy Keane ignited the Republic of Ireland's European Championship campaign by scoring in the first 15 minutes of the opening game, at home to Croatia. The Irish have maintained such a good head of steam since then that they go into this evening's return match as group leaders, a point clear of Croatia having played one game fewer, and two in front of Yugoslavia after defeating them in splendid style on Wednesday.

Both Irwin and Keane were injured in that game and will be missing tonight as well as for the less daunting assignment in Malta next week. There are obvious replacements for them in Tottenham's Stephen Carr, considered unfortunate in some quarters not to be named ahead of Steve Staunton on Wednesday, and Blackburn's Lee Carsley. An additional change was strongly hinted at yesterday, however, when Ireland's manager, Mick McCarthy, said: "It would be the height of arrogance to come here and play the same free- flowing football we did at Lansdowne Road. I am sure Mr Blazovic [Croatia's coach] would be delighted if we did that. I need a team that can graft, get the ball and keep it."

That suggests a 4-5-1 formation as used in the away game with Yugoslavia last November, when an unfortunate 1-0 defeat resulted. Niall Quinn would again play on his own in attack but would have two genuine wingers to support him in Wednesday's hero, Mark Kennedy, and Kevin Kilbane, on either side of a midfield trio from the Nationwide League comprising Carsley, Charlton's Mark Kinsella and Portsmouth's Alan McLoughlin.

Robbie Keane of Coventry, the scorer of a fine goal in Dublin, is suffering from an upper back injury and is rated "extremely doubtful". He missed training on Thursday and may be rested until the Irish play in Malta.

Among the substitutes is Tony Cascarino, who on Wednesday achieved one of the two Irish records he has set his heart on by passing Paul McGrath's 83 caps. He is now desperate to score once more and match Frank Stapleton's tally of 20 goals.

The strong impression being given is that, in the absence of their captain, Ireland will regard anything gained here as a bonus. McCarthy even had the mathematical evidence: "When we set off, five points from these three games was not a bad target, six would be good and seven would be more than anyone could have hoped for."

His opposite number is being far more bullish, as he needs to be. Miroslav Blazovic, although an impressed observer as Yugoslavia were over-run in Dublin, had said immediately after the game that the Republic had no chance of winning in Zagreb.

Either the Irish manager is deliberately playing everything in a low key, however, or he is genuinely worried by Croatia's experience and talent. Since contributing to their own downfall at Landsdowne Road by having two players sent off, they have produced mixed results. Typically, the best of them, a highly charged goalless draw away to Yugoslavia last month, was followed three days later by the worst - a scrambled 2-1 win against Malta, the chopping block of the group. Victories in their remaining two games, at home to the Irish and then Yugoslavia, would still guarantee finishing above the Yugoslavs and would leave McCarthy's team needing a win in Macedonia as well as Malta.

Most of the team that finished third in the last World Cup are still available and in favour. Everton's Slaven Bilic will be pressed into service despite his lack of match fitness alongside Igor Stimac in defence. Arsenal's Davor Suker will start in attack.

CROATIA (Probable): Ladic; Kovac, Stimac, Bilic, D Simic, Jarni; Soldo, Stanic, Asanovic; J Simic, Suker.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (Probable): Kelly (Blackburn); Carr (Tottenham), Breen (Coventry), Cunningham (Wimbledon), Staunton (Liverpool); Kennedy (Manchester City), Carsley (Blackburn), Kinsella (Charlton), McLoughlin (Portsmouth), Kilbane (West Bromwich); Quinn (Sunderland).