Just as it seemed that Purim, the most joyous of celebrations in the Jewish calendar, with fancy dress and drinking to excess, would take on a wholly different hue, the Republic of Ireland conceded a late goal, and lost two vital points, to draw with Israel here last night. The path to the next World Cup only opened up briefly. Ireland are still on course, but it has become a little more rocky.
Whether Jose Mourinho and Roman Abramovich, both in attendance, partook of the festival ahead of the Chelsea manager's two-day peace visit is another matter. But even their arrival could not overshadow a committed, passionate encounter. Both nations remain unbeaten in Group Four but Ireland, after taking an early lead through Clinton Morrison, should have inflicted the first defeat on Israel at home for five years. They endured a series of scares only to succumb to a late, late goal from the Arab Israeli substitute Abas Suan. There was also the bitterness of a late booking for the impressive Roy Keane - one of eight - which means he misses the next competitive match, also against Israel, in June.
This was the first time an international match in Israel had sold out in advance in 16 years. Not since the 1989 World Cup play-off against Columbia, which was narrowly lost on aggregate, had there been such unfettered anticipation. That was as close as Israel have come since they qualified for the finals - for the only time - in 1970. However, such has been their bullish start to this campaign that there was real optimism.
There was also a genuine passion about playing the Irish - who had brought 3,000 fans of their own, the largest visiting support to arrive since the second Intifada started. Such was the excitement that the stadium had reached two thirds of its 40,000 capacity an hour before kick-off, and every Israeli fan was presented with a blue replica shirt to wear, while thousands of faces were daubed in colours. The senses were attacked by pumped-up music. There was even ticker-tape for the warm-ups - which, bizarrely, the stadium announcer tried to curtail by telling the Irish players to clear off. When the teamsheets arrived Kerr, as expected, preferred to use Steve Finnan on the right of midfield, ahead of the creative Andy Reid. Finnan was asked to deal with the threat of Israel's playmaker, Yossi Benayoun. The 24-year-old from Racing Santander can drift left and has been at the heart of Israel's attack during the campaign.
Interestingly the Israel coach, Avraham Grant, selected the three players with significant experience of the Premiership, including Bolton Wanderers' Talal Ben Haim, although he excluded a fourth, the captain and former Derby County defender Avi Nimni. His replacement with the armband, Shimon Gershon, was at fault as Ireland executed an astonishing start. They took the lead in the fourth minute to stunned silence. John O'Shea released Damien Duff, whose low, left-wing cross deflected off Ben Haim and ran through to Clinton Morrison, who hooked it sharply into the net at the near post, and from the tightest of angles, with Gershon caught out. Talk about quietening the crowd. They were almost catatonic with shock.
It was Morrison's third goal of the campaign and, for Kerr, an affirmation of the faith in him. Israel pushed back but the Irish were composed in possession, with Roy Keane the fulcrum, even if Andy O'Brien was booked early for a foul while a header by Yanic Katan narrowly cleared the bar. Then Stephen Carr ran into trouble on the corner of his own area and conceded a free-kick from which Idan Tal struck a vicious, curling shot. Shay Given, almost unsighted, parried.
Ireland continued to draw the sting against the inventive Israelis but it did not prevent another header, this time from Omer Golan on the half-hour, from going close, while Duff gave the ball away only for Katan to be forced away from goal and his shot steered away. With the pressure growing there was another booking, for Carr, for time-wasting.
Carr was again lax at the start of the second half, ceding possession, only for Kenny Cunningham to cover alertly and block Katan's low shot while Given then easily held a weak drive from Golan. For Ireland the threat, increasingly, came from Duff who persistently forced Ben Haim to foul him even if he was often isolated in his breakaways. But as the number of frustrated Israeli infringements grew, so did the Irish respite even if, after a mix-up, Yossi Benayoun ballooned over when free inside the area.
And then Adoram Keisi was equally wasteful, sidefooting straight into Given's midriff with the goal beckoning. But just as it seemed that Israel had wasted their last opportunity, they scored. In injury time the ball was laid back to Suan, whose low shot from 25 yards beat Given. Duff's deflected drive struck the crossbar but it wasn't enough. Ireland had surrendered a vital victory.
- More about:
- Damien Duff
- Folk Rock
- John O'Shea
- Jose Mourinho
- Middle East
- Premier League
- West Ham United
- Yossi Benayoun