Dunne given daunting challenge

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The Independent Online

Many virgin soldier has become a man in the capital of the Netherlands, and the 20-year-old international novice Richard Dunne has to grow up quickly here tonight. In the absence of the more worldly Wimbledon defender Kenny Cunningham, who was left at home injured, Dunne makes his competitive debut for the Republic of Ireland; a seasonal debut, too, since a five-match suspension has ruled him out of contention for any Everton matches since last May.

Many virgin soldier has become a man in the capital of the Netherlands, and the 20-year-old international novice Richard Dunne has to grow up quickly here tonight. In the absence of the more worldly Wimbledon defender Kenny Cunningham, who was left at home injured, Dunne makes his competitive debut for the Republic of Ireland; a seasonal debut, too, since a five-match suspension has ruled him out of contention for any Everton matches since last May.

Whether or not Patrick Kluivert, one of the most twinkling stars of Euro 2000, is fit for the home side, it is a daunting task as the Irish set out in World Cup qualifying Group Two with away fixtures against the Netherlands and then Portugal, two of the semi-finalists at last summer's tournament.

The red cards littering Dunne's young career have often been put down to clumsiness rather than malice, his style calling to mind the classic excuse for a late tackle: "I got there as quick as I could, ref". Neither pace nor athleticism are his greatest virtues, but he has lost some weight, and gained some confidence, following Ireland's summer tour to the United States, on which the Dubliner won his third cap and scored a first international goal.

Personal incentives this evening include the chance to prove that centre-half, not right-back, is his best position and to impress upon Everton's manager, Walter Smith, that he is worth persevering with, rather than selling to Wimbledon. "A good performance would help me," he said yesterday. "I'd like to have had a couple of games behind me [this season] but in training I've felt really sharp."

That is just as well, in the circumstances. Although the Dutch will be without half the team edged out on penalties by Italy in the same Amsterdam ArenA two months ago, they can still call upon sufficient talent and experience to make their visitors clear second favourites. For his first match in charge of the national team, Louis van Gaal cannot call upon Jaap Stam, Chelsea's new signing Winston Bogarde, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Boudewijn Zenden (all injured), Dennis Bergkamp or Aaron Winter (both retired). But Van Gaal is expected to choose five of his former Barcelona charges, including Ronald de Boer, and two of the latter's new Rangers club-mates, the defenders Giovanni von Bronckhorst and Bert Konterman - despite seeing them given a chasing in the Old Firm match last weekend.

The 5,000 Irishmen here will doubtless take the opportunity to remind the Rangers contingent of the margin of Celtic's victory at Parkhead, but can hardly expect their country to pull off a shock as seismic as their favourite club managed. Most will have uncomfortable memories of football's orange order comfortably subjugating the greens in the 1994 World Cup in Florida and a Euro 96 play-off at Anfield, and losing only one of their last nine meetings.

More recent disappointments, since Mick McCarthy replaced Jack Charlton, have included conceding a goal 12 seconds from the end in Macedonia, and then losing to Turkey on away goals, both of which coast a place at Euro 2000. McCarthy insisted yesterday that his players are not dwelling on those blows ("footballers have selective amnesia") and that after the Balkan tour of the last qualifying tournament, the Netherlands and Portugal were welcome places to be playing.

"I think it's a brilliant game to start with," he said. "Better here than Lithuania or Albania or some of the places we've been in the past. We've got Kenny Cunningham missing, but apart from that, it's a strong squad."

Also missing, he might have added, are Mark Kennedy, who would almost certainly have started the game, and Phil Babb, who were sent home after allegedly practising their climbing skills on a policewoman's car in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The prank ended any chance Babb had of being picked ahead of Dunne in defence, while Sunderland's Kevin Kilbane will play instead of Kennedy, providing ammunition from the left for the Large and Little combination of his club-mate Niall Quinn and Internazionale's Robbie Keane.

Keane's namesake Roy, who missed four of the European Championsip qualifiers, is fit to play despite lingering back trouble, which generally has a talismanic effect on the Irish. He and Charlton's Mark Kinsella, a Premiership player again, will need to be at their best to subdue Robbie Keane's Inter team-mate, Clarence Seedorf and Barcelona's Phillip Cocu. "I go into every game thinking we can get something from it," McCarthy said. "Because I have to."

NETHERLANDS (4-4-2, probable): Van der Sar (Juventus); Reiziger (Barcelona), Konterman (Rangers), F de Boer (Barcelona), Van Bronckhorst (Rangers); R de Boer (Rangers), Seedorf (Inter), Cocu (Barcelona), Bosvelt (Feyenoord); Kluivert (Barcelona), Vennegoor (Twente) or Bouma (PSV Eindhoven).

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2, probable): A Kelly (Blackburn); Carr (Tottenham), Breen (Coventry), Dunne (Everton), Harte (Leeds); G Kelly (Leeds), Kinsella (Charlton), Keane (Manchester Utd), Kilbane (Sunderland); Quinn (Sunderland), Keane (Inter).

Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).

GROUP TWO FIXTURES

Wed 16 Aug: Estonia 1 Andorra 0. Today: Andorra v Cyprus; Netherlands v Republic of Ireland. Tomorrow: Estonia v Portugal. Sat 7 Oct: Andorra v Estonia; Cyprus v Netherlands; Portugal v Rep of Ireland. Wed 11 Oct: Netherlands v Portugal; Rep of Ireland v Estonia. Sun 15 Nov: Cyprus v Andorra. Wed 14 Feb: Portugal v Andorra. Sat 24 March: Andorra v Netherlands; Cyprus v Rep of Ireland. Wed 28 March: Andorra v Rep of Ireland; Cyprus v Estonia; Portugal v Netherlands. Wed 25 April: Netherlands v Cyprus; Rep of Ireland v Andorra. Sat 2 June: Estonia v Netherlands; Rep of Ireland v Portugal. Wed 6 June: Estonia v Rep of Ireland; Portugal v Cyprus. Wed 15 Aug: Estonia v Cyprus. Sat 1 Sept: Andorra v Portugal; Rep of Ireland v Netherlands. Wed 5 Sept: Cyprus v Portugal; Netherlands v Estonia. Sat 6 Oct: Netherlands v Andorra; Portugal v Estonia; Rep of Ireland v Cyprus.

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