Football / World Cup USA '94: McGrath in doubt for Irish decider: Charlton may lack three regular defenders as Norway lie in wait at the lair of the Giants

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A POLL here of international journalists has made the Republic of Ireland the second most likely team to become champions of the world 19 days from now. Remarkably, they were within three votes of the favourites Brazil (25-22), though there is nowhere near as much optimism among the scribes travelling with Jack Charlton's team, especially when it was revealed last night that Paul McGrath is doubtful for today's final first-round game against Norway here.

The man on whom Ireland's defensive organisation depends (and that is said despite a performance against Mexico on Friday that was poor by his colossal standards) has a sore thigh muscle, and his shoulder is still giving him pain.

Alan Kernaghan is on stand-by but, with respect to the Manchester City stopper, McGrath's presence in the Giants Stadium is vital to Ireland as Group E comes down to its fateful conclusion. The four countries stand aligned this morning, each on three points. The Irish could finish top or they could end up bottom. They could draw and go out (though that is unlikely); they could lose and still go through as a third-place qualifier if the outcome of Italy against Mexico in Washington is favourable.

The guessing games and the predictions are endless, as are those about the adjustments Charlton will make to his side, one he will prepare as normal in the dressing-room but which, at 12.25pm, he must leave in the hands of his assistant, Maurice Setters, while he heads for the stand. Fifa, the world game's governing body, taking exception to his behaviour towards officials in Friday's defeat by Mexico, has banned him from the touchline.

Charlton was also fined pounds 10,000 and is still seeking confirmation as to what exactly he did wrong. 'I'm quite looking forward to sitting up there with a beer in my hand and telling Maurice on the walkie-talkie to move so-and- so around,' he joked. 'The players don't seem to be too worried about it. They had a whip-round for me but raised only dollars 60.'

More seriously, Ireland's manager admits his players will miss his presence by the dug-out. He will have earned his dollars 60 and more if he has rejuventated his team. Although John Aldridge's late reply at least gives Ireland a goals advantage over Norway and Mexico, last Friday's defeat took a physical toll, and they must dig deep to win a place in the next stage. That looked a formality after they beat Italy, which presumably persuaded the foreign writers to make them second favourites.

'Two results will suit us, a win or a draw,' Charlton said. 'It does not matter how we do it as long as we get through.

'We would prefer to win the group and stay in New York, but if we go out of a very competitive group, we can say we have done our best and were unlucky, or perhaps we did not get the right result at the right time.'

There will be changes today at full-back, where Denis Irwin and Terry Phelan are suspended. Gary Kelly is handed his World Cup debut at 19 while Steve Staunton is pulled back to the left side of defence, where he operates so successfully for Aston Villa.

He is needed there to counter the aerial threat of the 6ft 4in Sheffield United lighthouse, Jostein Flo, who for his country operates in an advanced right-sided role. 'It's going to be a battle and, to be honest, I don't expect to win too much in the air,' Staunton said. 'I'll do whatever it takes to put him off. I'll hold on to his jersey, I'll jump first to get above him, I will get into his ribs. I will do everything I can without giving free-kicks away.'

Kelly, the Leeds United dynamo, is desperate for his opportunity, an equable temperament presenting him with no fears before so demanding a debut at this level. 'It's going to be a fairy-tale for me after all the good things that have happened in the last 12 months,' he said. 'I'm not the sort who suffers from nerves.'

There are worries, too, for the Norwegian coach, Egil Olsen. 'I said before Ireland played Mexico that the worst possible result for us was for Ireland to lose by 2-1 or 3-2. It means we have to go out to chase and steal the game and, like the Irish, that is not what we do best. It'll be a hard physical game with lots of long balls. Maybe people should watch it from outside the stadium.'

Norway have to score because a goalless finish would leave them vulnerable, should Italy and Mexico tie but with goals scored. Alf Inge Haland is suspended and will be replaced by a familiar figure from the Premier League - Oldham's Gunnar Halle or Chelsea's Erland Johnsen.

NORWAY (probable): Thorstvedt (Tottenham); Berg (Blackburn), Johnsen (Chelsea), Bratseth (Werder Bremen), Bjornebye (Rosenborg Trondheim), Flo (Sheffield United), Rekdal (Lierse), Bohinen (Nottingham Forest), Leonhardsen (Rosenborg Trondheim), Jakobsen (Lierse), Fjortoft (Swindon).

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (probable): Bonner (Celtic); G Kelly (Leeds), Babb (Coventry), McGrath, Staunton (both Aston Villa), McAteer (Bolton), Keane (Manchester United), Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday), Townsend, Houghton (both Aston Villa), Aldridge (Tranmere).

Referee: J Torres Cadenas (Colombia).