Jubilant Irish fulfil Figo's fears

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The Independent Football

In the end, the fears of the great Luis Figo proved well founded: Ireland were indeed a more troublesome opponent than England. Yet even allowing for the fact that the Irish possess several fine individual players, there really is no earthly reason why they should outperform England and do so on a fairly consistent basis.

In the end, the fears of the great Luis Figo proved well founded: Ireland were indeed a more troublesome opponent than England. Yet even allowing for the fact that the Irish possess several fine individual players, there really is no earthly reason why they should outperform England and do so on a fairly consistent basis.

If Figo's Portugal were a redoubtable foe for the English in Charleroi, they were potentially twice that for Mick McCarthy's team in Benfica's original Stadium of Light, even if a couple of the Sunderland boys reckoned they felt quite at home there. Just to get Ireland's achievement fully in perspective, substitute Matt Holland's stunning 73rd-minute equaliser, which gave them back-to-back away draws against the losing semi-finalists of Euro 2000, was the first goal that Portugal have conceded in their inhospitable old stadium in 10 years.

True, Ireland spent most of this Group Two match on the back foot - none more defiantly than Richard Dunne, who cannot even command a first-team place at Everton - but England would have had few more opportunities to take away the initiative from a side who take some stopping when in full flow, as they know to their cost.

What Ireland may lack in overall quality compared to England they more than make up for in character and organisation. If Kevin Keegan believes the one good thing he gave England was spirit, he ought to spend a few days with the Irish, then he would know what bonding was about. It has taken a while to achieve, and that is one advantage which McCarthy, now in his fifth year as manager of Ireland has had over Keegan, but the Irish will play for one another in a way which England seldom do.

Besides, the Barnsley-born McCarthy is made of sterner stuff than Keegan. He too has taken plenty of flak since succeeding Jack Charlton and will probably continue to take it until Ireland qualify again for a major championship. Asked if he could imagine McCarthy quitting like Keegan, Pat Quigley, the president of the FA of Ireland, replied: "I don't think Mick is that kind of man."

McCarthy is also a better tactician than his England counterpart, as he proved here with a substitution which Keegan may not have had the foresight to make, even if he had the bravery. At half-time, with Ireland goalless but at the mercy of Joao Pinto's midfield mischief-making, McCarthy did the unthinkable: he took off their totem Niall Quinn and replaced him with the busy Ipswich midfielder Holland. It was also the sort of substitution that Charlton probably would not have made and was indicative of how much Ireland's style has changed under McCarthy.

"We'd not really had an aerial threat - I thought Couto [the Portuguese central defender] was brilliant - and I really wanted to try to get balls into Robbie Keane's feet," said McCarthy. "I also wanted to sit Matty Holland in front of the back four and stop Joao Pinto causing us problems. He did it to such an extent that Pinto had to come off and Holland went on to score the equaliser. I said to him afterwards, 'I thought I told you to sit, not get forward and score'. It was a fabulous strike."

The substitution, which left Ireland with just one up front, looked as if it might have backfired when Portugal went ahead 11 minutes into the second half, Sergio Conceicao succeeding where Figo, Rui Costa and Sa Pinto had failed.

They were made to pay for their profligacy when Holland scored from 25 yards, but as McCarthy said, "it won't mean diddlyspit if we don't beat Estonia on Wednesday".

Goals: Conceicao (56) 1-0; Holland (73) 1-1.

PORTUGAL (4-4-2): Quim (Braga); Jorge Costa (Porto), Couto (Lazio), Beto (Sporting Lisbon), Dimas (Sporting Lisbon); Figo (Real Madrid), Rui Costa (Fiorentina), Vidigal (Napoli), Conceicao (Parma); Joao Pinto (Sporting Lisbon), Sa Pinto (Sporting Lisbon).

Substitutes: Simao for Joao Pinto, 77; Pauleta for Sa Pinto, 77.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): Kelly (Blackburn Rovers); Carr (Tottenham Hotspur), Breen (Coventry City), Dunne (Everton), Harte (Leeds United); McAteer (Blackburn Rovers), Roy Keane (Manchester United), Kinsella (Charlton Athletic), Kilbane (Sunderland); Quinn (Sunderland), Robbie Keane (Internazionale).

Substitutes: Holland (Ipswich Town) for Quinn, h-t; Duff (Blackburn Rovers) for McAteer, 69.

Referee: A Ouzounov (Bulgaria).

Bookings: Portugal: Couto. Ireland: Robbie Keane.

Attendance: 65,000.

Man of the match: Rui Costa.

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