Irish set high standard

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The Independent Football

A familiar theme of the Republic of Ireland's adventures in the current World Cup campaign has been having celebrations following good results either enhanced or diluted by news from other group matches later the same day.

Hearing earlier in the season that Portugal and the Netherlands had inflicted serious damage on each other in a 2-2 draw was one of the high points; after Wednesday's 2-0 victory over Estonia, reports from the late kick-off in Lisbon that the group favourites led Cyprus only 1-0 at half-time (the visitors having hit a post) initially heightened the Irish sense of well-being, only to lower it as five second-half goals flew in.

In eliminating Ireland's advantage on goal difference at a stroke ­ or six strokes ­ with gains still to come against the group's three weakest members, the Portuguese have effectively won themselves an extra point. "We are not going to beat them on goal difference,'' said the Republic manager, Mick McCarthy, yesterday. "But you'll not get me to say I've given up on top spot. I hope for a twist in the tale.''

Whether or not they can beat the Netherlands at Lansdowne Road in September, the Irish seem destined for a play-off for the fourth successive major tournament. Having lost the previous three is, as much as anything, what makes the prospect a daunting one.

Marks for effort and commitment have been consistently high and the quality, though variable, has left McCarthy's team unbeaten in eight group matches and 12 games all told. "Performances throughout have been very, very good,'' McCarthy added. "We're top of the group, and looking forward to a fantastic game in September keeps everybody on a high.''

There was never any great danger of Estonia causing an upset to rival their victory in this year's Eurovision Song Contest, even on a pitch that could have grown potatoes. Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella did especially well in controlling the midfield, confirming that Ireland can dominate a certain level of opposition even without Roy Keane. It hardly needs saying that he will be required at full fitness and top form when the Dutch arrive.

The same goes for Niall Quinn, whose latest attempt (his fifth) at breaking Tony Cascarino's Irish scoring record lasted only 36 minutes before he was forced off with a troublesome back injury. With Robbie Keane also finishing the season less than 100 per-cent fit, strikers have still scored only one goal out of Ireland's 18 in seven group games. Clinton Morrison, who has made a good impression in two appearances for the Under-21 side, could have a role to play and will have as much to look forward to this summer as any Irishman, honorary or otherwise.