The Republic of Ireland dropped their first points of the World Cup qualifying campaign as stubborn Iceland held them to a goalless draw yesterday to plunge a packed Lansdowne Road into silent depression.
Two headers by Tony Cascarino in the first half were just wide of the mark and a virtuoso display by the comeback man, Roy Keane, brought brief cheer to the 33,869 fans, but that apart they had to endure a frustrating afternoon.
Even the one point the Republic gained could not send them back to the top of Group Eight, after Macedonia's 11-1 hammering of Liechtenstein on Saturday. Goal difference keeps the Macedonians ahead, and they provide the next opposition for the Irish, in April.
That is a long time for their manager, Mick McCarthy, to sort out what went wrong in yesterday's game. "I thought of all sorts of things to try and get a breakthrough and a goal, but we never delivered the ball with any real quality into their box," McCarthy said. "We didn't play well, but you have to give Iceland credit for stopping us playing. It is very disappointing."
His team was expected to win comfortably, but their only consolation yesterday was that they maintained their record of not yet conceding a goal in the competition. Keane was superb in a sweeper role for 60 minutes - he took the man of the match award - then moving into midfield as the need for a goal became more vital. It would not come, however, and the most alarming aspect of the result was that few clear-cut chances were created.
McCarthy tried a trio of substitutions in an attempt to turn things around, but surprisingly did not send on the master marksman John Aldridge, who is still left seeking the goal he needs to equal Frank Stapleton's Irish record of 20.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: A Kelly (Sheffield Utd); Kenna (Blackburn), Irwin (Manchester Utd), Babb (Liverpool), Breen (Birmingham), Keane (Manchester Utd), Townsend (Aston Villa), McLoughlin (Portsmouth), D Kelly (Sunderland), McAteer (Liverpool), Cascarino (Marseilles). Substitutes: Cunningham (Wimbledon) for Kenna, 63; Harte (Leeds) for Irwin, 63; Moore (Middlesbrough) for D Kelly, 78.
ICELAND: B Kristinsson (Brann), L Sigurdsson (Stoke), Birgisson (Orebro), Jonsson (Orebro), Adolfsson (IA Akranes), R Kristinsson (Orgryte), Gylfason (Brann), H Gudjonsson (KR Reykjavik), H Sigurdsson (Tennis Borussia Berlin), T Gudjonsson (VfL Bochum), Sverrisson (Hertha Berlin). Substitutes: Gretarsson (Breidablik) for R Kristinsson, 70; Thordarson (IA Akranes) for H Gudjonsson, 85.
Referee: S Ormandjiev (Bulgaria).
Bookings: Republic of Ireland: Breen, D Kelly. Iceland: R Kristinsson, Sverrisson, Gretarsson.
Man of the match: Keane.