Keane's presence can inspire Republic to end play-off jinx

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The Independent Football

Iranians arriving here earlier in the week for this evening's World Cup play-off first leg against the Republic of Ireland could be forgiven any confusion caused by the headlines and placards reading "Staunton set for debut". The Staunton in question was not Aston Villa's Steve, who will extend his Irish record to 93 appearances today, but Munster's Jeremy, given a first start in the rugby union international with Samoa.

As the two codes still share the Lansdowne Road stadium, the rugby fixture has been shunted back to tomorrow. Today, in every way, Ireland against Iran is the only game in town. The locals are approaching it with mixed emotions, their confidence inflated by Roy Keane's willingness to play and the Republic's outstanding home record under Mick McCarthy, then pricked whenever some mentions previous play-off matches.

There have been eight of them all told, and not a single Irish victory in 36 years that began when the Republic lost their chance to play at the 1966 World Cup, losing 1-0 to Spain in neutral Paris. A 2-0 victory for the Netherlands at Anfield to decide qualification for the next tournament to be held in England – Euro '96 – was the only one of the eight games decided by more than a single goal.

Margins since then have been heart-breakingly tight: losing 3-2 on aggregate to Belgium in 1997, and missing out of Euro 2000 on an away goal to Turkey. On each of those occasions, the first leg has been in Dublin and has not produced the desired victory to carry into the away game. That may explain why neither Keane nor his manager, Mick McCarthy, meeting the media yesterday lunchtime, cared to dwell on them. "It is history," said Keane, in a tone of quietly spoken menace which implied that the subject was now closed.

Some were a little alarmed at the way Ireland's most important player spoke about the knee injury that kept him out of Manchester United's last five games: "I am still not too happy," he admitted. "If it was a friendly, I don't think I would be here. Fingers crossed I can get through tomorrow. Then if there is any sort of reaction, I will have to go back to the specialist."

"If something has to be done with the knee then I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. Right now I want to play and probably need to play. I've got more important things to worry about, like us qualifying.

"I've been to a World Cup before [USA 94] but I'm still only 30 and want to get there again. All the good things we've done in this campaign will go out the window if we don't get through now."

Keane's worries about his knee was hardly music to Sir Alex Ferguson's ears either, but United's captain was adamant that his decision to play had caused no friction with Ferguson, who had, he said "been brilliant about it".

McCarthy professed no concern, even though Keane's team-mates had been brave enough to award him the ancient yellow bib (never known to be washed) as the worst trainer in Thursday's session.

The manager was more worried about having to inform players like Gary Kelly, Kenny Cunningham, Steve Staunton, Mark Kinsella and David Connolly that they will not be starting this evening's game. Steve Finnan, Gary Breen, Staunton, Matt Holland and Niall Quinn were the luckier ones, all beneficiaries of having performed well in the 4-0 win over Cyprus last month that completed a fine qualifying group record of 24 points from 10 games – more than almost all the countries who went through automatically.

The mantra from the Irish camp this week has been that all that work will be wasted if Iran are under-estimated over the next five days. The Asian play-off winners seem certain to be formidable opponents in Tehran next Thursday, charging forward in front of 100,000 passionate supporters, so it is essential for Ireland to build a lead today, preferably without conceding the away goal that undermined them against both Belgium and Turkey.

It would be a bonus if the injury that reportedly had Iran's leading player, the striker Ali Daei, limping around yesterday proved worse than Keane's. In any case, the Irish must hope that Quinn's aerial presence and Robbie Keane's pace, supported by good service from Jason McAteer and Kevin Kilbane on the flanks, can unhinge a possibly suspect defence.

Iran's coach, the irrepressible Miroslav Blazevic, has an unusual game plan, destined to fail: "Roy Keane? I will ask the police to arrest him," he said. No Irish Garda would dare attempt it, on this of all days.