San Marino 1 Republic of Ireland 2: Winner in final seconds saves Staunton

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The headlines will be clear enough: Ireland saves Ireland. But it's less likely that the young Manchester City midfielder, with a precious goal just eight seconds from the end of this match, will have saved Steve Staunton.

Following the débâcle in Cyprus this was so nearly the disaster in San Marino for the Republic of Ireland's manager. This tiny republic, with a population of 29,000, one professional footballer, a Fifa ranking of 195 and no points from 37 previous European Championship qualifying games, came so close to inflicting the most embarrassing result in the Republic's history, and earning the greatest in their own.

The name of Manuel Marani will be writ large here, though his goal, in the 86th minute, was aided by a farcical mix-up involving Richard Dunne, Paul McShane and Ireland's goalkeeper, Wayne Henderson.

"Diabolical," Staunton called it, and he was right. But then this whole performance was a farce. An embarrassment for vaunted, Premiership-cushioned reputations.

The Republic won and with it lifted themselves to third place in Group D. They have Wales and Slovakia to come in a double-header next month at Croke Park, with 76,000 crowds expected, and it may be only the short time-scale that prevents Staunton's brief tenure coming to an end before then. "We keep going," he said. But can he?

Last night the 2,000 or so Irish fans - utterly dominating this tiny, two-sided stadium - contented themselves by angrily calling for the head of John Delaney, the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland. Delaney will not like that. His trigger finger was itchy in the autumn and he will want the bullet for Staunton, not himself.

"We're angry ourselves," the manager said. "We are rebuilding and trying to look forward. We don't like coming here and scraping through. What more can I say? We have got three points. Keep moving on. The players are disappointed with their performance."

Staunton claimed that his team's attitude could not be questioned but added: "You cannot legislate for what is going on at the moment but hopefully the tide has turned with that late goal." Asked if would have quit with a draw, he responded: "No, not at all." It sounded like a man hanging on.

The Sammarinese got to half-time having barely been threatened by the Republic, who over-elaborated - Robbie Keane was simply maddening, Shane Long, on his debut, disappointing - or snatched at opportunities.

John O'Shea limped off and things went from bad to worse until, soon after the restart, a cross by Steve Finnan was flicked on by Stephen Ireland and headed home by Kevin Kilbane at the far post. But the Republic became even more sluggish and uninspired.

Half-chances came and went and then a long punt forward caused mayhem in the Irish defence for Marani to capitalise. The ball hit his foot, his knee, his thigh and somehow limped over the line to cue extraordinary scenes of celebration.

In blind panic, the Republic poured forward. Opportunities went begging. There were four minutes of injury time and at the end of them Ireland popped up to force the ball into the home net. He ran to the bench and embraced Staunton. It was as if he was grabbing a drowning man.

San Marino (4-5-1): A Simoncini (San Marino Calcio); C Valentini (Santa Novafeltria), Mi Marani (Novafeltria Calcio), D Simoncini (Santa Giustina), Albani (Saludecio); Gasperoni (SS Murati), Muccioli (Savarna), Domeniconi (Misano Calcio), Ma Marani, Bonini (both AC Dozzese); Selva (Sassuolo). Substitutes used: Andreini (Tre Fiori) for Gasperoni, 65; Vannucci (AC Libertas) for Bonini, 76; Bugli (Secchiano) for Domeniconi, 87.

Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Henderson (Preston); Finnan (Liverpool), O'Shea (Manchester United), Dunne (Manchester City), Harte (Levante); Duff (Newcastle United), Carsley (Everton), Ireland (Manchester City), Kilbane (Wigan Athletic); Keane (Tottenham Hotspur), Long (Reading). Substitutes used: McShane (West Bromwich Albion) for O'Shea, h-t; Hunt (Reading) for Harte, 74; Stokes (Sunderland) for Long, 81.

Referee: P Rasmussen (Denmark).