Elliott goal keeps embarrassed Irish stumbling along

Cyprus 0 Republic of Ireland 1
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The Independent Football

This was shocking. For the first half it was absolutely shocking. The verdict of former Ireland favourite Liam Brady that Cyprus - who missed a penalty and were only thwarted by the continued brilliance of Shay Given - were "a different class" summed it all up. But, through Stephen Elliott's early goal, the Irish, somehow, got the victory that keeps their hopes of reaching the World Cup finals alive. Just.

It also came at a price, with Damien Duff twisting his knee. Manager Brian Kerr said he was "very doubtful" for Wednesday's final Group Four encounter with Switzerland. That, too, has to be won but Ireland will have to play a whole lot better even to draw.

They will also have to do better if Kerr, under the severest pressure, is to hold on to his job. The confidence seems to have drained from him and his players. "We will have to play much better," he acknowledged. "We came to win the game. We needed to win the game. We won the game."

There were 12,397 Irish fans in attendance - with just 1,039 Cypriots - combining holiday with the availability of tickets due to local apathy. Their cheers at the final whistle were due to embarrassed relief. "Their reaction at the end seemed happy enough," was Kerr's blinkered response.

He also had the blinkers on when claiming Ireland deserved to win. The evidence seemed to offer a wholly different verdict. This was probably their worst display since struggling to beat Malta six years ago. They are heading in a steep downward curve.

From back to front they were appalling. Steve Finnan was withdrawn at half-time, Matt Holland coming on to "give a bit more hard work", John O'Shea was exposed at left-back, and in midfield Graham Kavanagh and Kevin Kilbane were over-run. And this from a team that, despite their injured and suspended, were still drawn exclusively from the Premiership.

One of that division's newest arrivals, Sunderland's Elliott, supplied the prayed-for start. On six minutes the ball ran to the 21-year-old striker after Robbie Keane shielded it cleverly in the area, and he swivelled to slam in his first international goal. "A poacher's goal," said Kerr, but his players failed to build on it.

They contrived to deliver 40 minutes of abject football. It was without rhyme, rhythm or reason. The initiative was not merely surrendered but not even considered. At first the defence stood up, with Kenny Cunningham lunging to block Konstantinos Makridis's shot before Given smartly stopped Ioannis Okkas's low shot with his outstretched foot. But then it didn't, and the keeper had to do even better. The disappointing Richard Dunne, in a panic, tripped Okkas as he wriggled through, but Given turned the penalty around his right-hand post.

It was a brilliant stop but it did not inspire those in front of him. Stephen Carr's composure deserted him, Elliott surrendered possession and Given held on to two drives before tipping over from Okkas again, while Lambros Lambrou headed wastefully.

Ireland were shambolic. Farcical. Chaotic. After half- time Holland created a passage of calm but with Duff's departure that disintegrated, even if Kilbane should have done better with a header. There was no control, no leadership. Carr's careless clearance hit an opponent and broke wide. The cross sliced off Asimakis Krassas's boot.

He was unmarked. As was Keane, at the other end, as Elliott found him but his first touch was poor and his deft, goalbound was scrambled away. But Ireland held on. "I don't see it as an unfair result," contended Kerr. But Cyprus's coach, Angelos Anastasiadis, stated: "I told the players to play for every Cypriot who was not here. God did not want it that way." Indeed, he was on Ireland's side.

Four years ago, they played badly in Cyprus only to win 4-0 due to Roy Keane's inspiration. They made it to the World Cup then. Last night, despite the result, that appeared much less probable this time round.