McCarthy looks for crowning glory

World Cup play-off: Republic coach forgets failures and stresses the positive despite potential absence of three key men
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On this day four years ago, the Republic of Ireland lost a World Cup play-off against Belgium in Brussels and were forced to accept that they would be missing from the finals for the first time since 1986. Their manager Mick McCarthy believes his team have the character and ability to mark the anniversary with the opposite outcome against Iran this afternoon, whether or not his two most experienced players Steve Staunton (93 caps) and Niall Quinn (87) pass fitness tests on back injuries.

A raft of hugely impressive statistics supports him. Updated after Saturday's 2-0 victory in the first leg, they show Ireland unbeaten in 16 games, having scored at least once in every one of them; unbeaten in 15 competitive matches since losing 1-0 in September 1999 to Croatia; and never losing a tournament match by more than a single goal in McCarthy's five years in charge.

To those members of his squad more responsive to emotion than cold figures, the manager can recall ­ with Staunton and Quinn to back him up ­ the exhilaration of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup by winning in Malta; or remind them of the emotional depths plumbed by the play-off failures in Belgium and then, two years later, Turkey.

"In Malta, it was absolute joy and elation, a very contented feeling," said McCarthy, who went on to captain the team through every minute of their run to the quarter-final in Italy. "In Belgium and Turkey it was completely the opposite, a feeling I don't want again. But experiences make you what you are. I've learnt from mine, and that's helping me keep calm now. We're aware of what's at stake. There's not iced water running through my veins. But I've been in situations like this before."

What encourages him most, apart from the scoreline from Dublin, is the quality he sees when looking round the dressing-room. "We're a much better team than we were four years ago and even two years ago, and far better equipped to deal with these situations than we were," he said. No negative thoughts are being allowed to intrude, which was inevitably the case in the previous play-offs after the home leg was drawn 1-1 each time. To that end, the squad have not even practised penalties, which would decide qualification if Iran were to win 2-0 today. The best way to avoid that ghastly possibility would be to score an away goal, leaving the home side needing four.

From an entirely objective point of view, there are three possible areas of concern. The first is personnel. If Staunton and Quinn cannot be risked ­ neither had trained until last night ­ then, with the inspirational Roy Keane already absent, the Irish would be missing their three most capped players and a key man from each area of the pitch.

Quinn's absence also changes the whole nature of Ireland's game, necessitating a different approach to feeding the front players, on the ground, or even changing the system from the regular 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 buttressed by an extra midfielder. Lee Carsley, now of Coventry, would be the favourite to take that role alongside Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella at the heart of the action. If a striker was chosen instead of Quinn, it would be Wimbledon's David Connolly (foolishly sent off in the Belgium tie four years ago) with his club-mate Kenny Cunningham a reliable understudy to Staunton.

Whatever the tactics, the mentality needs to be right. In a position as strong as this one ­ away to Croatia and Macedonia in Euro 2000, at home to Portugal and away to the Netherlands in the current campaign ­ McCarthy's teams have a tendency to fall further and further back, with calamitous results. Most famously, they were 12 seconds from qualifying in Macedonia, before conceding an equalising goal from a corner.

Finally there is the setting for the most important game in most of these players' careers. It seems unlikely that they will have experienced anything like the atmosphere created by a crowd of 110,000, who began queuing outside the Azadi stadium last night and will fill it some hours before kick-off. The best the Irish can do until they get on to the pitch, as early as possible, is to remember how much noise 3,000 Iranians made at Lansdowne Road on Saturday and multiply that by three dozen. Add in the unexpectedly high altitude, assisting Karim Bagheri and his colleagues with their famed long-range shooting, and it is clear why nobody here can remember Iran losing at the Azadi.

The crafty Miroslav Blazevic may have missed a trick in not pointing out that he was in charge of the Croatian team that last lowered Ireland's tricolours in a match that mattered. Will he become McCarthy's nemesis again? Before the Asian qualifying round against the United Arab Emirates and again in Dublin, the 66-year-old Bosnian, rather unwisely, announced that he would hang himself from the crossbar if Iran failed; he may find 110,000 volunteers to do the job if the Irish score on the break today.

For the reality is that, despite any misgivings, superstitions and dark forebodings, one goal is all it should take. Another performance between the posts like Saturday's by Shay Given and even that will not be necessary. The champagne in the aeroplane ready to carry McCarthy's men back to Ireland tonight is locked in the hold. It should not be on hold much longer.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2, probable): Given (Newcastle); Finnan (Fulham), Breen (Coventry), Staunton (Aston Villa) or Cunningham (Wimbledon), Harte (Leeds); McAteer (Sunderland), Kinsella (Charlton), Holland (Ipswich), Kilbane (Sunderland); Robbie Keane (Leeds), Quinn (Sunderland) or Connolly (Wimbledon.)

IRAN (3-5-2): Mirzapour (Foulad); Peyrovani (Pirouzi), Golmohammadi (Foulad), Rezaei (Perugia); Mahdavikia (Hamburg), Kavianpour (Pirouzi), Bagheri, Minavand (both unattached), Khaziravi (Esteghlal); Karimi (Al Ahli), Daei (Hertha Berlin).

Referee: W Vega (Costa Rica).