Ireland take heart from O'Brien's performance

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Hyperbole is always a risk when it comes to playing Brazil - especially in the emotional, pride-puffed aftermath of deservedly holding the full-strength world champions to a goalless draw. But surely the suggestion, by one of Ireland's most accomplished sports writers, that Ronaldo had been made to look "a little overrated" on Wednesday evening took the pao de polvilho (that's a Brazilian biscuit).

The reason for the claim was the assured performance of Newcastle United's Andy O'Brien and its wild exaggeration should not detract from the display of, until now, a bit-part player in international football.

The Republic of Ireland have never been sure about O'Brien. Brian Kerr, before he was appointed as coach, publicly doubted the player's ability. Maybe it's O'Brien's single appearance for England at Under-21 level, maybe it's his unassuming manner. But eight caps - mostly as a substitute - represent a poor return for the 24-year-old who has been the central defender in the Irish squad with the most regular Premiership experience.

Indeed it is not unreasonable to suggest that such is his club form, and England's injury troubles, that had he stuck with the nation of his birth he would have been in Faro not Dublin this week.

O'Brien has cut a forlorn figure at times - surviving at the base of a pecking order behind Gary Breen and Richard Dunne. The decision by Kerr to experiment with the heart of his defence - against Brazil of all teams - was a vindication that he can abandon his natural caution.

O'Brien was the clearest plus point alongside Kenny Cunningham and Stephen Carr, who is re-establishing the form which, before his horrendous knee injury three seasons ago, saw him ranked among the world's best full-backs.

"The defence was superb," said the goalkeeper, Shay Given, who was, nevertheless, called on to make three impressive saves - such was the pedigree of their opponents.

"I thought Andy O'Brien and Kenny Cunningham were excellent, delighted for Andy especially. He was a rock at the back, right until the final whistle, a great block in the last minute - he didn't look out of place against Ronaldo."

The hyperbole again - but no matter. In the February chill of Lansdowne Road, Ireland deserved their moment in the sun which will be denied to them this summer. After all, they played well and spurned the game's two best chances.

O'Brien's own response was admirably measured. "It was a good collective performance," he said. "It was enjoyable testing ourselves against the best."

Further examinations are to come. The Irish have a testing series of friendlies before their 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign begins, and they find themselves in a group containing France, whom Kerr described as "unbackable" such is their status as favourites.

Warm-ups against the Czech Republic and Romania and an away fixture to Poland will provide answers.

There are certainly enough questions. Now into his second year, Kerr is still some way from settling on his best XI. His record is admirable - one defeat in 12 with few goals conceded - but he lost the one that mattered. The capitulation in Basel against Switzerland (also in the same World Cup group) soured his stewardship.

On the credit side, against Brazil he successfully fielded six players who were not involved in Japan and South Korea and O'Brien provided one solution. On the debit side, Kerr still has not convincingly solved the problem of who to play alongside Robbie Keane and - more worryingly - either what shape his midfield should be or who it should contain. Young, exciting players such as John O'Shea and Andy Reid are being assimilated but, again, it is clear that a leader is lacking.

Roy Keane has not been replaced, if he ever can be. And that's the worry when the serious business starts again.

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