Roy Keane was unequivocal in his expectation that the Republic of Ireland will qualify for next year's World Cup. "Underdogs? No, I don't think so. Not at Lansdowne Road," the former captain said in the wake of the patchy 2-0 victory over the Faroe Islands which saw the Irish finally creep to the head of Group Four.
Keane's claim was in reference to the games to come this autumn in Dublin against France and Switzerland. "We're top of the group," he added "but from the early days in any qualification I always thought it would come down to what we do at home to France and Switzerland, and that's the way it's panning out."
Keane is undoubtedly correct although Ireland know - following the damaging draws away and at home to Israel - that they go into the matches needing to win at least one and probably both. And this for a nation which has not beaten any team ranked more highly than Albania in a competitive match in the last three years.
They also go into the first of those games - against France in September - with seven players, Keane included, on yellow cards. None can afford to be missing later in the campaign but the Manchester United midfielder insisted that Ireland would be in better shape nevertheless. They would have hoped to have been in a better position also. "But if you ask the other countries, then they would say exactly the same," the 33-year-old said. "You have to earn the right to qualify for these tournaments. What's needed is to do better against France."
Beating the Faroes was the minimum requirement, especially after dropping points to the Israelis, who have turned this group into a four-horse race. "The players, Brian [Kerr, the manager] and the staff will have been disappointed, but the expectations are higher now," Keane, who was suspended against Israel, said. "The criticism was harsh but there's a good bond and hopefully that came through in difficult conditions when on many occasions we've not maybe produced."
However, the man who has done more than most to raise those expectations, added of Wednesday's victory: "Let's put it into perspective, it was the Faroe Islands. We should be expecting to beat these countries with the players we have." In the end the Irish had to depend - in difficult conditions which led to them being fog-bound for an extra night - on a second-half penalty from Ian Harte and a deflected goal by Kevin Kilbane.
There was also the promise of a competitive debut by the 21-year-old Stephen Elliott. "Hopefully I've made an impact, but I still think there's a lot more to be done in the group," the Sunderland striker said. Everyone in Ireland is acutely aware of that.
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