O'Brien off in night of frustration

Republic of Ireland 2 - Israel 2 (Half-time 2-2)
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The Independent Football

Republic of Ireland: Harte 6, Keane 11

Republic of Ireland: Harte 6, Keane 11

Israel: Yehiel 39, Nimni pen 45

Attendance: 36,000

This World Cup qualifying group will undoubtedly go to the wire. But, having looked like they might just duck under it, the Republic of Ireland now appear more likely to trip up on it.

Surrendering a two-goal lead to Israel meant the Irish threw away the initiative and drew for the fourth time. All four could, should, have been won. No one doubts their talent and organisation. But they also appear to lack belief when it counts and that could, ultimately, account for manager Brian Kerr's regime.

The Irish now travel to the Faroe Islands, although they will be without their defender Andy O'Brien, who was dismissed after retaliating when he was struck by the Israeli goalkeeper, Dudu Awat. It summed up Irish frustration and Awat's gamesmanship. He was one of seven Israeli bookings. It was a maddening, angry evening.

Defence had been the pre-match pre-occupation. Defence outside the stadium, with fans urged to arrive early amid security concerns and tales that armed Garda officers had been deployed to escort the Israeli players and monitor planned pro-Palestinian protests. And defence on the pitch also, with the Irish shorn of three right-backs - Stephen Carr, Steve Finnan and Alan Maybury - and shuffling John O'Shea across.

This meant a first start in 14 months for Ian Harte, who has just suffered the ignominy of back-to-back relegations, his Spanish club, Levante, going the way of Leeds United last season. Nevertheless it was some rehabilitation for Harte, who three months ago complained that Kerr had ostracised him to such an extent that he was not even returning his calls.

That was of no concern to Kerr, although he would have been discomfited by the absence of Roy Keane - suspended, like Carr. The visitors, seeking to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1970, also collected damaging suspensions, losing Bolton's Talal Ben Haim and the midfielder Walid Badir.

The pundits had called for a high-tempo approach from the Irish. It happened, and to stunning effect. Eleven minutes in and Ireland were two goals up. For the first there was sweet redemption for Harte and justification for Kerr, who had highlighted the 27-year-old's ability at set-pieces.

On six minutes Kevin Kilbane was felled 25 yards out and Harte curled in the free-kick. It lacked pace, butAwat could only palm it against a post and into the net. The crowd, the players, erupted. A 10th goal for Harte, in his 59th appear-ance, and Israel were in disarray.

Quickly Matt Holland threw himself into a tackle, the ball ran back to Andy Reid in the centre circle and he flighted it, quarter-back style, into the path of Keane's run. The striker had stolen a yard and coolly guided the ball, on the volley, from just inside the area and beyond the stranded, bewildered Awat. Dudu was in the doo-doo.

The Irish momentum was hindered with the cruel loss of Keane, who had damaged his neck in the third minute, when hauled back by Ariel Benado. It could have been a penalty; instead, Ireland lost their top scorer. As they reorganised, Israel earned a free-kick and Yossi Benayoun - being watched by Newcastle United - picked out Avi Yehiel, who got in between Kenny Cunningham and O'Shea and headed firmly into the net from some distance.

It got dramatically, gut-wrenchingly worse. On half-time O'Shea was punished, harshly, for grappling with Benayoun as he attempted to volley a cross from Abbas Suan and Avi Nimni, at the third attempt, thumped in the penalty. It was bewildering. Somehow the Irish had squandered a lead which should have been unassailable. They desperately needed a quick restoration, and soon after the restart Duff almost provided it. As a corner came in Awat flapped again and Duff, somehow, on the goal-line headed the ball out rather than in. He was under pressure, but still...

Ireland poured forward. O'Shea joined in and fed Clinton Morrison, whose shot was blocked. The ball ran through to Awat, who was caught in the face by O'Shea. The goalkeeper's theatrical reaction - not for the first time - fuelled Irish hurt.

It got worse, with the keeper, amazingly, saving Duff's close-range shot and then blocking O'Shea's point-blank header. Such had been the Israeli time-wasting that there were seven minutes of added time. Ireland could not use it.