Football: Outlook still bright for defeated Irish

Croatia 1 Republic of Ireland 0

BRAVE FACES and fixed smiles were the order of the day as the Republic of Ireland's players woke up in Malta yesterday to begin preparing for their third critical European Championship qualifying match in just over a week. Having allowed his charges to feel sorry for themselves in the immediate aftermath of a stoppage-time defeat by Croatia, the Irish manager, Mick McCarthy, announced that, after that brief period of mourning, "if I see one unhappy face, I'll kick their arse."

Although the boys in green might have felt more like kicking Arsenal's Davor Suker, whose 94th-minute goal had cost them the leadership of Group Eight, it was McCarthy's gentle Yorkshire way of pointing out that there was nothing to be ashamed of and that the important thing now was looking ahead to the final two matches.

Victory in Malta and then, next month, in Macedonia would put Ireland beyond the reach of Croatia and would leave Yugoslavia needing to win their last fixture, which just happens to be away to the Croats - India against Pakistan with knobs on.

So two more wins would guarantee the Irish a play-off place and quite probably be enough to win this convoluted but engrossing section full of political tension, fixture chaos, and desperately close games between four of the five contestants.

Politics had indirectly shaped Ireland's whole approach to Saturday's match. Their government's understandable reluctance to grant visas to Yugoslavia last June, when the Balkan crisis was only just beginning to subside, meant a postponement of that key fixture until last Wednesday, only three days before the game in Zagreb. Although beating the Yugoslavs 2-1 was a huge boost to their prospect of qualifying, McCarthy lost his captain Roy Keane and Denis Irwin to injury and felt obliged to mix and match on Saturday.

"I wanted to avoid Croatia and Yugoslavia back-to-back," he said. "I didn't believe my players could play at the intensity and pace they did against Yugoslavia for three games, so that affected my thinking."

Six pairs of fresh legs were therefore brought to the party in a defensive 4-5-1 formation. Before naming names, McCarthy had said it would be a team picked "to graft and keep the ball". Graft they did, as any side wearing the green shirt always does, but keeping the ball proved beyond them against opponents as gifted as Croatia.

Players of the class of Real Madrid's adventurous wing-back Robert Jarni, Parma's Mario Stanic, and Suker kept the Irish defence, in which Kenny Cunningham again stood out, at full stretch. Inevitably there were close shaves, a header by Suker disallowed for offside, three or four low saves by Alan Kelly, Stanic's header against the crossbar, and an aerial handling offence by Gary Breen to which even the most experienced defenders seem strangely prone.

It was a risky strategy even without the subtle time-wasting that would eventually prove to be Ireland's nemesis. There were gasps from the Irish section of the crowd when the fourth official indicated five minutes of added time.The home team and their supporters gained new life. In the fourth extra minute, Suker, a proud captain of a proud nation, found half a yard to steal onto a long ball over the top and end Ireland's brave resistance.

Goal: Suker (90) 1-0.

CROATIA (3-5-2): Ladic (Croatia Zagreb); Bilic (Everton), Stimac (West Ham), D Simic (Internazionale); Kovac (Bayer Leverkusen), Stanic (Parma), Soldo (VfB Stuttgart), Asanovic (Panathinaikos), Jarni (Real Madrid); Suker (Arsenal), Rapajic (Perugia). Substitutes: Rukavina (Croatia Zagreb) for Bilic, h-t, J Simic (Croatia Zagreb) for Stanic, 84.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-5-1): A Kelly (Blackburn); Carr (Tottenham), Cunningham (Wimbledon), Breen (Coventry), Staunton (Liverpool); G Kelly (Blackburn), Carsley (Blackburn), Kinsella (Charlton), McLoughlin (Portsmouth), Duff (Blackburn); Cascarino (Nancy). Substitutes: Kilbane (West Bromwich) for Duff 57, Harte (Leeds) for G Kelly, 72, Quinn (Sunderland) for Cascarino, 84.

Referee: D M Vega (Spain). Bookings: Republic of Ireland: Carsley, Staunton, McLoughlin, Kilbane.

Man of the match: Jarni.

Attendance: 30,000.

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