A U2 concert; 50,000 Gaelic Football fans at the All-Ireland semi-final; and the little matter of the Republic against the Netherlands with a place in the World Cup finals beckoning; the Emerald Isle is in for a heavy weekend. Quite how heady it becomes will ultimately depend less on Bono, or the Kerrymen and Meath at the Gaelic shrine of Croke Park than whether Mick McCarthy's men tip Louis van Gaal's over The Edge.
A year ago in Amsterdam, the Irish took advantage of uncertainty in the badly-weakened Dutch ranks to earn a deserved 2-2 draw in Van Gaal's first match as coach, and followed up with a more fortunate but equally invaluable draw away to the other Euro 2000 semi-finalists, Portugal.
In the six subsequent Group Two matches they have never been less than competent, conceding only two goals and remaining unbeaten. If there has been a fault, it was in not scoring frequently enough in two matches against Andorra, so that Portugal, although held to another draw in Dublin three months ago, are the most likely group winners.
So this afternoon's protagonists are effectively playing for second place, a prize additionally enriched by the reward of a two-leg play-off against the Asian runners-up. The other unexpectedly good news yesterday for Ireland, who need only a draw, was that they will, after all, have one of their first-choice back four available to counter the formidable Dutch attack after Ian Harte of Leeds United passed himself fit. Harte needed stitches in an ankle wound suffered against West Ham last weekend and has barely trained, but is prepared to fill what would have been a gaping hole at left-back against Chelsea's Boudewijn Zenden.
''He was desperate to play and it shows the commitment and team spirit that we have," said McCarthy. The manager can now select two natural full backs, with Harte's club-mate and uncle, Gary Kelly, on the other flank to counter Marc Overmars. In midfield, he will want a solid defensive player, like Fulham's Steve Finnan or Blackburn's Jason McAteer, as extra back-up on the right, if the more attacking instincts of Kevin Kilbane or Damien Duff are to be indulged on the left.
Blackburn's Duff deserves to start and could even do so as a striker, where he has impressed the manager and everyone else. That would mean either leaving Niall Quinn on the substitutes' bench and opting for a diminutive pairing with Robbie Keane to run the legs off Jaap Stam, or dropping Keane, who has not scored in his last seven internationals. Quinn clearly offers more of an aerial threat but, hampered by persistent back trouble, has waited even longer (14 months) for the one goal he needs to break Frank Stapleton's Irish record of 20.
The Netherlands' selection looks easier to predict and should vary in only one position from the side that took England apart at White Hart Lane recently: Chelsea's Mario Melchiot is the obvious choice to replace the injured Michael Reiziger at right-back. ''We're very confident," Van Gaal said yesterday. "Of course, not to qualify for the World Cup would be a disaster for the players but also for the coach and for the people. A World Cup without the the Dutch would be very difficult to accept."
And a fourth successive major championship without the Irish – they have not been present since the 1994 World Cup – would be hard to take in these parts after coming so close to qualifying so often. They are currently unbeaten in 13 matches and have not lost a competitive home game under McCarthy, who will have completed six years in the job when his contract expires in February. "We're top of the group, unbeaten at home and we've had a fantastic year," he said, which will nevertheless not prevent talk of a possible change at the top if all goes wrong today.
He will need, at the very least, the inspirational Roy Keane, abetted by Matt Holland, to disrupt the centre of the Dutch midfield much more effectively than England managed, stopping the supply to the wingers and to Keane's club-mate Ruud van Nistelrooy. Only then will U2 be able to sing It's A Beautiful Day.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (probable, 4-4-2): Given (Newcastle); Kelly (Leeds), Dunne (Manchester City), Staunton (Aston Villa), Harte (Leeds); McAteer (Blackburn) or Finnan (Fulham), Holland (Ipswich), Roy Keane (Manchester Utd), Kilbane (Sunderland); Duff (Blackburn) or Quinn (Sunderland), Robbie Keane (Leeds).
NETHERLANDS (probable, 4-4-1-1): Van der Sar (Fulham); Melchiot (Chelsea), Stam (Lazio), Hofland (PSV), Van Bronckhorst (Arsenal); Zenden (Chelsea), Cocu (Barcelona), Van Bommel (PSV), Overmars; Kluivert (both Barcelona); Van Nistelrooy (Manchester Utd).
Referee: H Krug (Germany).
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