Kerr braced for tough test of renewed Irish resolve

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The Independent Football

In the city where a scientist, accidentally, experienced the first acid trip, the Republic of Ireland will today face their own acid test. Failure to beat Switzerland here will probably end the resurgent dream of reaching Euro 2004. It will also, the manager, Brian Kerr, has warned, precipitate the final break-up of this squad, this generation, of players.

Not that Kerr, a former lab technician himself, is for experimenting right now. "Bookies have not made much money out of me over the years," he said when asked if he would gamble with a more attacking formation. "I don't think it's a game for us to throw caution to the wind and put all our forwards on the pitch."

Indeed not. Kerr is, by nature, circumspect, but he also knows Ireland have the capability of beating the Swiss, who have conceded two goals in each of their last three home matches, without being reckless. The only real conundrum, as ever, is where to deploy Damien Duff. It is expected he will be asked to play on the right of a team which will be led by Matt Holland, if he recovers from a cold which set in on Thursday. Otherwise the Irish will have to find their fourth captain in a year.

Kerr himself has shaken off the effects of a bug and was typically buoyant.

Mindful of the huge number of his countrymen who have descended on Switzerland's second city - 7,000 at least with only 3,000 holding tickets - he set forth his own treatise on the Irish mentality. It was intended to counter claims that the nation has not won a single meaningful away game against "strong" opposition since Mark Lawrenson's goal beat Scotland in 1987 to help qualify for the European Championship finals. Victory, he said, was in the genes.

"Many times, despite what others may say, we have won matches against the odds," Kerr said. "In the numbers game, strictly speaking we should be outgunned. But generally we come up with teams which are competitive, tactically cute and mentally tough. It is part of our historical make-up, of the Irish people, given the difficulties we have had in the past, with invaders from all sorts of places. It has made us have to fight harder."

Despite the grand sweep, he knows what he is talking about. Although relatively unknown outside Ireland, Kerr boasts an astonishing record. He is unbeaten after 10 matches as manager of the senior team, having inherited a demoralised squad. But, more than that, he knows how to win. As a youth coach he has consistently overachieved, squeezing every last drop of talent from his players. And many of those players - Duff, John O'Shea - are with him now. So when he said, "We are playing away to a team that is winning the group, not to Argentina or Brazil," it comes from a position of strength, of belief.

It has, in addition, not been going like clockwork for the Swiss. The camp is split and after an astonishing start to the qualifiers, they have stumbled. Five points have been shed in their last three games and they have won only one of their last six. Morale is low and many Swiss players are not figuring for their clubs. A 4-1 defeat to the resurgent Russians came amid allegations of favouritism. The coach, Kobi Kuhn, the only survivor from the five managers who began the Group Ten campaign, had to call a meeting to sort out differences between Murat Yakin and his team-mates Stéphane Henchoz and Johann Vogel, who had complained publicly about Yakin receiving preferential treatment. Yakin is involved in another dispute after backing a poll calling for the captain and goalkeeper, Jorg Stiel, to be replaced.

Importantly, however, for the Swiss, Yakin's younger brother Hakan, the playmaker, will be fit. That could be the key - how he is subdued and how Ireland's own talismen of Duff and Robbie Keane fare.

A win and the Irish are through - to the play-offs at least. It could go down to the wire and that would suit Kerr. Crucial late goals have been scored in four games this year. Another today and the Irish will have concocted their own hallucinogens.

Republic of Ireland: (probable, 4-4-2): Given (Newcastle); Carr (Tottenham), Breen (Sunderland), O'Shea (Manchester United), Finnan (Liverpool); Duff (Chelsea), Holland (Charlton), Healy (Sunderland), Kilbane (Everton); Keane (Tottenham), Connolly (West Ham).

Switzerland: (probable, 4-3-1-2): Stiel (Mönchengladbach); Haas (West Bromwich), M Yakin (Basle), Muller (Lyon), Berner (Freiburg); Huggel (Basle), Vogel (PSV Eindhoven), Wicky (Hamburg); H Yakin (Basle); Frei (Stade Rennais), Chapuisat (Young Boys).

Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).