McCarthy's regulars rule

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The Independent Online

That two (male) streakers were not prepared to do the full monty, by keeping their briefs on, reflected a certain half-heartedness about the Republic of Ireland's flattering 3-0 victory over Finland. There is, however, rarely such a thing as an entirely pointless international match, especially in the midst of a World Cup campaign, and Wednesday's game confirmed important points for both nation's coaches.

That two (male) streakers were not prepared to do the full monty, by keeping their briefs on, reflected a certain half-heartedness about the Republic of Ireland's flattering 3-0 victory over Finland. There is, however, rarely such a thing as an entirely pointless international match, especially in the midst of a World Cup campaign, and Wednesday's game confirmed important points for both nation's coaches.

Finland's Antti Muurinen was reassured in defeat that he has the players to trouble England at Anfield next March. The outstanding Jari Litmanen, who cannot get a game for Barcelona, even proved the exception to the rule of thumb Mick McCarthy will be guided by in future - that contenders for a place in his buoyant Ireland team need to be appearing regularly for their club.

Rustiness as much as anything caused the Watford striker Dominic Foley to waste an invaluable opportunity to impress the manager as a deputy for Niall Quinn who, like Roy Keane, had sent a sick note. Foley, badly off the pace, found himself sacrificed at half-time, when a tactical adjustment was required to prevent Litmanen running the show from an advanced midfield position.

Playing for Watford's reserves - "we have something like nine strikers at the club," Foley said - is no way to prepare for international football. As McCarthy put it: "You can't just switch on and off".

That also applies to the defenders Gary Breen and Richard Dunne, who both did well earlier in the season in away draws against the Netherlands and Portugal but were frequently caught out on Wednesday. Although Breen has forced his way back into the Coventry City team, causing Scotland's Colin Hendry to lose his international place through lack of regular involvement, Dunne's problem may not necessarily have been solved by leaving Everton to become one of Joe Royle's umpteen defensive recruits for Manchester City.

Then there are the Blackburn Rovers pair Alan Kelly and Jason McAteer, neither of whom have been regulars recently. Kelly, Ireland's preferred goalkeeper until now, is not even second choice at Ewood Park and so is in danger of falling behind Newcastle United's Shay Given (who played against Finland) and Charlton Athletic's Dean Kiely, both of whom are performing well in the Premiership on a weekly basis.

McAteer kept himself in the manager's thoughts by setting up late goals for Kevin Kilbane and Steve Staunton after coming on as a substitute but, by the time Ireland play a friendly at home to Denmark in February, his position wide on the right will be under threat from at least two rivals. Fulham's Steve Finnan not only scored the opening goal on Wednesday but played as well as anyone in a green shirt, first in midfield and then at right-back; Mark Kennedy's future availability after missing the last four games as a disciplinary measure was also confirmed by McCarthy, who said: "We've got the strongest squad since I took the job four years ago."

The Irish are on a more impressive streak - seven games unbeaten - than either of Wednesday's pitch invaders managed, and there is no reason why it should not be extended into double figures next spring.

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