Football: Road to Euro 2000 - Ireland succumb to Suker punch

Croatia 1 Republic of Ireland 0 Suker 90 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 30,000
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The Independent Online
THE REPUBLIC of Ireland's hopes of qualifying for their first major tournament since 1994 suffered a setback that need not prove a fatal one when Croatia's captain, Davor Suker, scored in the third minute of stoppage time in Zagreb last night. It was a dreadfully cruel blow after a much changed Irish side had defended with determination and spirit for so long, but a risk that they took by playing the match in their own half of the pitch with a team picked to contain.

Mick McCarthy, deprived of Manchester United's Roy Keane and Denis Irwin, made six changes in all from the XI that had achieved an invaluable 2- 1 victory over Yugoslavia last Wednesday, securing three of the five points he had set as a minimum target from the current demanding spell of three games in eight days. The two wingers, Mark Kennedy and Kevin Kilbane, were stood down to recuperate for Malta on Wednesday and the 37-year-old Tony Cascarino came in for Niall Quinn as the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation.

"I didn't believe my players could play at the same intensity as they did against Yugoslavia for three games, so that affected my thinking," McCarthy said. "We defended very, very well for 94 or 95 minutes and at that stage I think we'd probably earned a draw." Having it snatched from them means the Irish will probably need victories in Malta and next month in Macedonia to win the group. It is very much in their favour that Croatia's one remaining game is against the other serious contenders Yugoslavia, who must beat Macedonia twice in the next four days.

Croatia, beaten 2-0 in Dublin a year ago, had to make do without Zvonimir Boban in midfield but hardly missed him in a game in which the traffic was one-way and the visitors' half was as congested as the Dublin rush- hour. Suker's early volley over the bar was the first warning sign and two splendid saving tackles by Kenny Cunningham were soon necessary to prevent the warning becoming something more concrete.

Alan Kelly then had to block from Mario Stanic before the threats briefly died down. When they began again, Gary Breen almost sliced a centre from Stanic into his own net.

The worst alarm of the first half came after 41 minutes, Zvonimir Soldo flicking on a cross for Suker to head past Kelly and Ireland were greatly relieved to see a linesman's flag fluttering to indicate offside in front of the incensed home supporters. The only time McCarthy's side came close to scoring was two minutes later following a total misunderstanding between Igor Stimac and Drazen Ladic. The ball, which West Ham's new signing Stimac should have been shepherding back to his goalkeeper somehow eluded both of them, but Gary Kelly could do no better than hook it high and wide.

That brief interlude aside, proceedings continued much as before, with three alarms early in the second half. Kelly saved Robert Jarni's fierce drive low down, Stanic headed Suker's cross past a post and on the hour the same player climbed above Steve Staunton to head against the bar with Kelly for once well beaten.

It was a measure of the pressure Ireland came under that they had twice as many players shown yellow cards in the first 65 minutes - Lee Carsley, Alan McLoughlin, Staunton and the substitute Kilbane - as in all five previous group matches put together.

They survived without suspensions and, more importantly, appeared to be holding out for a point to keep them on top of the group as Suker shot a whisker wide and Breen escaped with an apparent hand ball in the penalty area.

But the Irish were horrified to see five minutes of stoppage time being announced by the fourth official. As Croatia, inspired to one last effort, surged on again, Kelly saved from the substitute Josip Simic - in vain. In what was effectively the 94th minute, Breen and Cunningham failed to cut out a long ball from which Arsenal's Suker beat a despairing Kelly and a devastated Ireland. One-nil to the Croatia...