Roy Keane flew in here last night and will play his first competitive match for the Republic of Ireland in almost three years when he lines up against Switzerland on Wednesday. His surprise arrival will add to the sense of optimism Ireland fostered with their impressive win over Cyprus which opened their World Cup qualifying campaign.
Keane, 33, returned from international exile last spring with Germany in 2006 in mind. But he had been expected to miss the first two qualification matches after suffering hairline fractures to two ribs. The diagnosis was a three-week recuperation. But after training at Manchester United on Saturday he was declared fit to join the Irish. He will train today before the squad leaves for Basle.
Ireland's manager, Brian Kerr, said: "When Roy withdrew, we had discussions with him and Manchester United about the possibility that he could return from his rib injury in time for the second match."
The inclusion is testimony to Keane's desire to play again after walking out on the last World Cup campaign. Initially Sir Alex Ferguson opposed Keane's comeback, but Kerr thanked the United manager. Keane's participation is crucial to Ireland's prospects - especially with memories of last autumn's rudderless defeat to the Swiss which ended their chances of qualifying for Euro 2004.
Against the limited Cypriots he was replaced by Graham Kavanagh but the Cardiff midfielder will step aside for Keane's first competitive appearance since the first leg of the play-offs for the last World Cup, against Iran in November 2001.
Indeed, that match followed on from the last time Ireland played Cyprus, when they won 4-0. On Saturday they threatened to eclipse that score and, possibly, Ireland's biggest win (6-0, also against Cyprus).
Although the Irish will take encouragement from Israel's draw in Paris against a disappointing French side, they will not have been pleased by the confidence-boosting 6-0 win the Swiss took against the Faroe Islands. They had been hit by retirements - and the ban for spitting imposed on Alexander Frei - that followed their disappointing campaign in Portugal. But 18-year-old prodigy Johan Vonlanthen struck a hat-trick.
Ireland have their own prodigies, and one of them - Robbie Keane - also scored. His 21st goal for Ireland came from the penalty spot after a brilliant run by Damien Duff ended with a trip. That was Ireland's third and drew Keane level with Niall Quinn's record as his country's top-scorer. At 24, Keane has time to more than double that total.
Duff's man-of-the-match performance was watched by the Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho who, it seems, is using international matches to check the form of players his club own but rarely use. Indeed, Duff's 180 minutes for Ireland this season is six times more than he has played for Chelsea.
Despite Duff's display the talk in Dublin was of Andy Reid - another prodigy - who scored a brilliant goal, Ireland's second, when he curled in left-footed from 25 yards. Earlier, Clinton Morrison had guided a Duff cross with his head into the far corner to open the scoring.
Reid's competitive debut, aged 22, was likened to that of Liam Brady's for Ireland in 1974 - although the man himself was a little more circumspect. Brady said Reid had "football intelligence", "guile" and "craft" but he offered a reason why Premiership clubs passed on taking him from Nottingham Forest for £5m: "He needs to lose half a stone," He certainly is some talent and will play against the Swiss. But it is the inclusion of Roy Keane which will please Kerr the most.
Republic Of Ireland (4-4-2): Given; Carr, O'Brien (all Newcastle), Cunningham (Birmingham); O'Shea (Manchester United); Reid (Nottingham Forest), Kilbane (Everton), Kavanagh (Cardiff), Duff (Chelsea); Morrison (Birmingham), Keane (Tottenham). Substitutes: Finnan (Liverpool) for Carr (69); Lee (Cardiff) for Morrison (80), Maybury (Hearts) for O'Shea, 82.
Cyprus (4-4-2): Panayiotou; Okkarides, Kakoyiannis, Lambrou, Charalambous; Theodotou, Charalampidis, Satsias, Makridis; Okkas, Konstantinou. Substitutes: Illias for Charalambous (63); Michail for Charalmabides (69); Krassas for Okkas (77).
Booked: Cyprus: Lambrou, Charalambous.
Referee: L Paniashvili (Georgia).
Man of the match: Duff.
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