Republic of Ireland. . . . . . . . . . . . .1
THE Republic of Ireland last night did what no team has done before in a World Cup. With a goal by Ray Houghton, they defeated Italy, who had never previously been beaten in their 12 previous opening matches in World Cup finals, a tournament they have thrice won.
This was a measure of the Republic's remarkable achievement, and the statistic fairly captured the drama amid the swamps of New Jersey. It was a sticky night with its sticky moments for them, but the Irish played with no little finesse and remarkable resolve in front of an astonished gathering of their countrymen in the arena.
Giants Stadium was a home from home for the Irish; Lansdowne Road West. It seemed that almost all the capacity 75,000 crowd were sporting the green and draping the balconies with the tricolour. The Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport billed the game 'The Brooklyn v Queens derby' but their own locals were overwhelmed.
The Republic were in need of such stirring, cacophonous support. Four years ago in Rome, they lost 1-0 to Italy in the quarter-finals, one of six previous matches against them in their history, all of which they had lost.
The Irish sounded their intent with the very first move of the match, when Denis Irwin sent a long ball into the heart of the Italian defence, which only partly cleared it to Steve Staunton, whose volley was mis-hit but a warning nevertheless of what was to come.
Perhaps the band playing their national anthem at half- pace had an effect on the Italians, for they were slow to start. More probably it was the Irish implementation of their new- found 4-5-1 system, with Tommy Coyne leading the line and Roy Keane and Andy Townsend coming late to support. Franco Baresi looked unsettled, Dino Baggio and Demetrio Albertini floundered in midfield.
It all came together in a goal for the Republic after 11 minutes, one to evoke their victory over England in Stuttgart in the European Championship finals of six years ago. John Sheridan clipped a high ball forward and Houghton, who scored that early goal in 1988 to begin the Republic's international odyssey, nipped in to intercept Baresi's headed clearance. Gianluca Pagliuca was eight yards off his line and Houghton, the man whose place in this team had been considered most in danger, sent a sweet left-footed shot over the stranded goalkeeper who turned to see the net rippling.
A second might have followed minutes later but Townsend, having had time to turn in the box, shot weakly from six yards, enabling Pagliuca to gather down to his right, after Staunton had found him, in plenty of space, with a neat ball in from the left. It seemed the Italians sensed the reprieve: these New York giants finally seemed to stir themselves.
Roberto Baggio did his best. The industrious, swift- footed striker constantly sought to set Giuseppe Signori free with some neat one-twos around the penalty area but while his free spirit was willing, the finishing was weak. Signori shot low and wide; Baggio high. Paul McGrath at the back, for the last three months a jaded absentee from the English season, was relishing the world stage.
In an attempt to bring a spark to his team's attack, Arrigo Sacchi, the Italian coach, replaced the anonymous Alberigo Evani with Daniele Massaro, a leading light in Milan's recent European Cup victory. Signori was pushed wide to the left, leaving Massaro to act as Roberto Baggio's partner.
A change in personnel, but more importantly in attitude, made Italy look more threatening. Dino Baggio began to make menacing runs from midfield, one such ending with the Italians howling for a penalty, though the composed Phil Babb had robbed him expertly.
A free-kick was given, however, for a challenge by Townsend on Paolo Maldini on the edge of the Irish penalty area and when Roberto Baggio rolled the ball to Dino, alarm bells rang. Pat Bonner safely managed to gather the shot in, however.
Moments later another run from Dino Baggio, again supplied by his namesake, produced another timely intervention, this time by Irwin. Keane, for this game playing more the midfield anchor to cope with Baggio's slightly withdrawn role seemed to be flagging, as did the demanding Irish style in the 90F heat. It would have come as no surprise had Signori, cutting in from the left scored instead of being denied by Bonner's huge hands.
But the Irish roused themselves anew and from Irwin's long ball Coyne laid on a chance for Houghton, whose low drive Pagliuca dived to save.
Then, Ireland's play came close to sealing the match. Keane manoeuvred himself to the byline on the left and pulled it back for Sheridan on the edge of the penalty area. His thumping drive stunned the bar. Soon after, a far-post header by Coyne, who had been ridiculously booked after being judged to have feigned injury, also troubled the goalkeeper.
The Italians too were stunned by a team with such remarkable reserves.
ITALY (4-4-2): Pagliuca (Sampdoria); Tassotti (Milan), Costacurta (Milan), Baresi (Milan), Maldini (Milan); Donadoni (Milan), Albertini (Milan), D Baggio (Juventus), Evani (Sampdoria); R Baggio (Juventus), Signori (Lazio). Substitutes: Massaro (Milan) for Evani, h-t; Berti (Internazionale) for Signori, 84.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-5-1): Bonner (Celtic); Irwin (Manchester United), Babb (Coventry City), McGrath (Aston Villa), Phelan (Manchester City); Houghton (Aston Villa), Keane (Manchester United), Townsend (Aston Villa), Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday), Staunton (Aston Villa); Coyne (Motherwell). Substitute: McAteer (Bolton Wanderers) for Houghton, 68, Alridge (Tranmere Rovers) for Coyne, 89.
Referee: M van der Ende (Neth).
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