Football / World Cup USA '94: Jack's giant stride: Eamon Dunphy applauds the heroism and self-belief of the victorious Irishmen

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IRELAND have truly arrived among the most powerful footballing natiions of the world. They can now play below their best and still slaughter Italy. For this was slaughter.

In all the areas of the field that matter, the Irish were different class. Italy began going backwards when Irwin and Staunton launched an attack that terrified Franco Baresi in the opening minute; 10 minutes later, Ireland scored an extraordinary goal. Ray Houghton, recalled to the Irish side after it seemed that his international career was finished, found an extra burst of inspiration to capitalise on another Baresi error and score a goal that will be remembered as long as Irishmen play football.

The Italians looked more demoralised than ever. For the rest of the first half play was scrappy on both sides. Ireland could not believe their luck, but maybe they have yet to realise how good they are. In truth, they might have expected much more from themselves in the first half; more, that is, in terms of coherent passing movement. But there was never any doubt about their confidence in each other. Every tackle was not simply aggressive but intelligent. Nobody personified intelligent aggression more than the best player on the field, Paul McGrath. The central defender emerged as the dominant figure, and was an elegantly heroic presence. Yet, by half-time, Ireland had failed to capitalise fully on the Italians' punctured self- belief.

The second half was a different story. The Italians had to go forward and they did. But every time Roberto Baggio, Guiseppe Signori and the other glamorous figures in this Italian team moved into the danger area, they were met with a certainty, a real conviction in the Irish defence. By the final whistle, that mood was tinged with arrogance. Ireland could have scored two more goals as they became increasingly dominant.

We should remember who they were dominating: seven members of the Milan team that has dominated European club football this year. And a nation that has also never lost its opening match on their 12 previous visits to World Cup finals. It is no wonder that last night the odds on Ireland winning the trophy were cut from 25-1 to 16-1.

This Irish World Cup adventure is only just beginning. The truth is they can play better than they did yesterday. And, inspired by the imperious figure of McGrath, they surely will.