The news that Roy Keane will not travel to Tehran for the second leg of Ireland's World Cup tie on Thursday has taken a little of the gloss off Saturday evening's deserved, if stressful, victory without removing the shine altogether. "Don't worry, we've got Roy Keane,'' was the headline above the pre-match analysis by Mark Lawrenson (or was it Alistair McGowan?) in an Irish newspaper. Now they haven't and even greater resolve will be needed to ensure qualification for a major tournament for the first time since 1994.
"Roy's knee has stiffened up and it would be unfair to ask him to play two matches in five days,'' said the Republic's manager, Mick McCarthy. But Steve Staunton and Niall Quinn, the only players in the squad with more caps than Keane, will both be on the charter flight to Iran this morning despite carrying injuries along with their luggage.
The absence of Ireland's inspirational captain may be a body blow but on Saturday their opponents could not land the more significant punch of an away goal. That, in the end, may be the most decisive factor of the tie, for the Irish could just be getting the hang of this play-off business.
"It's a lot easier to sit here 2-0 winners than at 1-1,'' said McCarthy. Of course, 1-1 was the inadequate scoreline on the occasion of both previous two-leg deciders, against Belgium in 1997 and Turkey two years later. Ireland once more faced the disadvantage of playing at home first but this time, having again secured a lead, were confident enough to build on it and then fortunate enough to preserve their advantage without conceding a goal.
Keane put aside the pain of persistent knee trouble, which may yet require an operation, driving the team on physically and verbally, though perhaps suffering a loss of influence later on as fatigue and discomfort increased during his first match for a month.
It was during that period, after establishing the lead with Ian Harte's penalty just before half-time and Robbie Keane's half-volley soon after the resumption, that the Irish were vulnerable. They had Newcastle's goalkeeper Shay Given to thank for not conceding a goal that would have changed the mood of the nation by Sunday morning mass.
Unusually slipshod work by a defence breached only five times in 10 World Cup group matches twice allowed Ali Karimi to bear down on goal with only Given ahead of him. He was thwarted by a brave block and then an outstanding one-handed save as 3,000 Iranian supporters behind the goal found a roar choked in their throats. "It's probably the most important couple of saves I've ever made for Ireland because away goals mean so much,'' said Given.
Keane, while agreeing with his manager that the team would have settled for a 2-0 scoreline before the start, was more critical of the performance, admitting: "We were disappointed with the way we played. We can do a lot better. We hit it too long sometimes and put pressure on Niall.'' Quinn, in fairness, made the most of the service, winning a good share of headers and often setting up colleagues around him. He also induced a sense of panic in the goalkeeper, Ebrahim Mirzapour, who punched more often than the average British heavyweight but collapsed just as easily.
Iran, playing their 11th game in 12 weeks, ought to have the spirit of a club side, and would have been able to resist more strongly had they reached the interval on level terms.
They were within a minute of doing so when Rahman Rezaei, a Serie A defender with Perugia, carelessly tripped Jason McAteer, who was going away from goal in pursuit of Matt Holland's pass.
Hart's penalty kick, like so many of his set-pieces, was deadly, but early in the second half he graciously stepped over a free-kick and allowed the lively McAteer – thriving after his recent move from Blackburn to Sunderland – to swing in a centre that was cleared no further than Robbie Keane, who thumped it back past Mirzapour to end a drought of international goals stretching back to the first group match against the Netherlands 14 long months ago.
Had McAteer not headed Kevin Kilbane's cross too firmly into the ground, from where it veered up and over the crossbar, Iran could have been out for the count. Instead, they stayed on their feet and almost landed a telling blow from first Karimi and then Karim Bagheri; the former Charlton man cut inside dangerously, but dragged his shot wide. "There's a long way to go yet,'' Roy Keane said in summary. About 3,500 miles, in fact, and, even though he will be travelling only as far as Manchester, his team-mates are capable of earning the precious prize at the end of the road.
Goals: Harte pen (44) 1-0; Robbie Keane (50) 2-0.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): Given (Newcastle); Finnan (Fulham), Breen (Coventry), Staunton (Aston Villa), Harte (Leeds); McAteer (Sunderland), Roy Keane (Manchester Utd), Holland (Ipswich), Kilbane (Sunderland); Robbie Keane (Leeds), Quinn (Sunderland). Substitutes: Cunningham (Wimbledon) for Staunton, 75, G Kelly (Leeds) for McAteer, 84.
IRAN (3-5-2): Mirzapour (Foulad); Peyrovani (Pirouzi), Golmohammadi (Foulad), Rezaei (Perugia); Mahdavikia (Hamburg), Kavianpour (Pirouzi), Bagheri, Minavand (both unattached), Vahedi Nikbahkt (Esteghlal), Karimi (Al Ahli), Daei (Hertha Berlin). Substitute: Khaziravi (Esteghlal) for Vahedi Nikbahkt, h-t.
Referee: A Pereira da Silva (Brazil).
Booking: Iran: Peyrovani.
Man of the match: Given.
Attendance: 34,000.Reuse content