Speed strikes - then Wales fall into trap of own making

Northern Irish succumb to the Poles as Keane seals a Republic flier
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The Independent Online

Wales played well below their best and had to settle for a 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan in their opening World Cup qualifying match in Baku, a result that suited England, who the Welsh will not be quite so eager to meet in Group Six after this performance.

Wales played well below their best and had to settle for a 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan in their opening World Cup qualifying match in Baku, a result that suited England, who the Welsh will not be quite so eager to meet in Group Six after this performance.

Gary Speed's opening goal was all Wales had to show for a spell when they dominated the Azeris and it was cancelled out by a stunning free-kick. "If we had played anything like we can then we would have won," Speed said.

Wales had struggled to impose themselves in the stadium named after the famous "Russian" linesman at the 1966 World Cup final, Tofik Bakhramov, and it took a change of personnel to signal a goal for Wales. Jason Koumas moved out to the left when John Oster came on to replace Mark Pembridge in midfield after the interval and the switch paid swift dividends. Koumas swung the ball over towards the far post, John Hartson headed back across and Gary Speed timed his run perfectly to touch the ball home.

But there was a shock for Wales in the 56th minute after Robert Page fouled Anatoli Ponomarov about 30 yards from goal. Rashad Sadikhov ran up a smashed the free-kick and the ball tore into the net via Paul Jones's fingers for the first goal Wales had conceded in 326 minutes. If Wales were stunned, the goal had an electrifying effect on Azerbaijan, who could have stolen three points with a spell of pressure. But Robert Earnshaw, who came on as a late substitute, did hit the post.

There was even more disappointment in Belfast where Poland breezed past Northern Ireland 3-0. But England should be happy that Poland did not produce anything that should unduly worry them when they meet on Wednesday in Katowice. Poland were set on their way by a gift goal when Maciej Murawski's corner from the left swung into the net at the near post off Maik Taylor's arm as the goalkeeper scrambled back to try to cover after first moving out.

Piotr Wlodarczyk added their second before half-time, but he will not be facing England after being sent off 11 minutes from the end for elbowing. Jacek Krzynowek finished off a swift counterattack 12 minutes after the interval.

Lawrie Sanchez, Northern Ireland's coach, said: "To a certain extent we were the author of our own misfortune. To concede a goal after three minutes is not what you want."

There was more joy south of the border with the Republic of Ireland making a convincing start to their qualifying campaign by trouncing Cyprus 3-0 at Lansdowne Road. Robbie Keane sealed the victory with a penalty in the 55th minute to equal the Republic's scoring record of 21 goals set by Niall Quinn.

Clinton Morrison opened the scoring to end his 777-minute wait for an international goal and the second came from Andy Reid, whose excellent performance might leaving a few club managers wishing they had granted the Nottingham Forest midfielder's wish to play in the Premiership. Reid has plenty of time to underline his quality by January, when the transfer window reopens, but then he might blot his copybook before then.

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