"There is one God up there and he judges us all at the end of the day," the imposing Albanian striker Igli Tare said, brimming with Balkan disdain, as he reflected on the perceived injustice of defeat. There may well be one God, but Lady Luck is smiling on the Irish right now. Brian Kerr, the manager, and his players were in the Albanian team hotel on Saturday evening attending a charity dinner. It would be safe to say that, if there had been a raffle as part of the proceedings, the Dubliner would have possessed the winning ticket. He does not so much have a passing acquaintance with the aforementioned lady as enjoying a rather intimidate relationship with her at present.
Across the hotel lobby Hans-Peter Briegel, the Albanian coach, was nursing a half pint of beer as well as a grievance. Like Tare, he felt the Irish had broken an "unwritten rule" by not returning the ball after it was kicked out of play following an injury. This ultimately, they claimed, led to the winning goal, an own goal at that, deep into injury time with the desperate Irish down to 10 men. Whether that is accurate is debatable but the moment was not quite in the same mould as that Arsenal goal against Sheffield United, which led to the match being replayed.
Still, the Albanians were insistent. "I never thought that an Irish team would behave like that because I have always felt that they were a country who believed in fair play," Tare said. "Everybody wants to win, but there is a correct way of winning things and I don't think the Irish will be happy with the way that they won the game." Judging by the wild scenes around Lansdowne Road, there seemed few traces of guilt, however. Instead, there was just dollops of relief amid the embraces and flying water bottles.
The victory, and Russia's streaky penalty which earned a draw in Switzerland, means that the Irish can plausibly top their qualifying group for Euro 2004. A miraculous statement, given they were pointless and rudderless last autumn, and one Kerr was aware of yesterday. "When I came into the job in January we were gone, we were supposed to be out of it completely," he said. "But now people are talking about can we win the group, which is quite a change. We have made up four points on Switzerland in the last three games because they have had three draws, whereas we have won two and drawn one." The equation is simple: if the Irish win their last three matches, they win the group.
They will probably have to go into the first of those games, against a rejuvenated Georgia at Lansdowne Road on Wednesday, without their best player. It was Damien Duff who limped off near the end, after the allotted substitutions had been made. He had run himself into the ground for the cause, playing behind the strikers, in a role which made the Irish more creative but also more vulnerable. It also asked a huge amount of Duff and, although he delivered, it was at a price. The diagnosis is not good - fatigue and sore tendons behind his knee may mean another tactical re-think.
Kerr went for broke in his first competitive match at Dublin. He needed a positive result and risked losing one point to gain three. But, of course, fortune favours the brave. An early goal, neatly taken by Robbie Keane after a speculative header by Stephen Carr and an unseen nudge by Kevin Kilbane, was quickly, and embarrassingly, cancelled out. The Albanians, nimble and energetic, carved through the Irish left, almost unopposed, and the impressive Ervin Skela calmly beat Shay Given.
Chances came, but they were also conceded. David Connolly cleverly played in Keane, but his header was saved, while the Tottenham striker's curling shot was pushed wide and his strike partner headed weakly over. The problem for Kerr was that his formation expected too much of his limited midfield three and mercilessly exposed the full-backs. Time and again there was a mass, collective intake of breath at the space afforded the Albanians. Fortunately, they did not take advantage. Moves broke down, desperate interventions succeeded. At the other end Keane went close, Duff poked the ball narrowly wide.
The desperation grew. Five minutes of added time, following an injury to the Albanian goalkeeper, gave hope. Gary Doherty, the scorer of the late winning goal in an altogether more impressive performance in Tbilisi last March, scuffed a shot across goal. With Keane lurking, the defender Ardian Aliaj panicked and hoofed into his own net.
"We got lucky in the end," Keane admitted. "But this could be a real turning point for us now." Indeed. The last time the Irish finished with 10 men was in the almost mythic victory over the Netherlands that propelled them into the last World Cup. Saturday's performance will not be one to be re-told in years to come, but the result just might.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-3-1-2): Given (Newcastle United); Carr (Tottenham Hotspur), Breen (West Ham United), Cunningham (Birmingham City), O'Shea (Manchester United); Kinsella (Aston Villa), Holland (Ipswich Town), Kilbane (Sunderland); Duff (Blackburn Rovers); Keane (Tottenham Hotspur), Connolly (Wimbledon). Substitutes: Carsley (Everton) for Kinsella, 55; Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur) for Connolly, 65; Reid (Millwall) for Kilbane, 75.
Republic of Ireland 2
Keane 6, Aliaj og 90
H-T: 1-1 Att: 33,000
ALBANIA (3-5-2): Strakosha (Kalithea); Aliaj (Charleroi), Cipi (Ghent), Beqiri (Vllaznia); Duro (Partizan Tirana), Lala (Hannover 96), Hasi (Anderlecht), Skela (Eintracht Frankfurt), Murati (Iraklis); Rraklli (Dyarbakirspor), Tare (Brescia). Substitutes: Bellaj (Panionos) for Murati, 58; Beqaj (OFI Crete) for Strakosha, 78; Myrtaj (Cesena) for Rraklli, 85.
Referee: T Mikulski (Poland).
Man of the match: Cipi.
* Russia fought back from 2-0 down to draw in Switzerland in Group 10. With the score 2-1 after 68 minutes, Igor Yanovsky tangled with Raphaël Wicky and both went down in the area. Sergei Ignashevich drove the penalty high into the net.Reuse content