Kerr faces game of catch-up in 'group of banana skins'

The in-flight entertainment on Monarch Airlines 9539 from Tirana, carrying the Irish squad, was the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. The title is a reminder of the challenge they still face in qualifying for Euro 2004 after a punishing Group 10 double-header in Georgia and Albania.

Four points from two games represent the minimum acceptable return. This may not be quite a group of death, but it may well be, as one Irish commentator put it yesterday, "the group of banana skins". Each of the five nations is capable of beating the others. The Irish may need to go to Switzerland, in their final game, in need of a win.

After visits to two countries that are, in themselves, an enigma, it is no great surprise that only a little light has been shed on Ireland's chances.

"It was the most difficult of trips to put together because of the isolation of the countries," said Brian Kerr, the Republic of Ireland's new manager, exhaustion etched on his face yesterday. "I think we managed all that stuff very well. Considering the withdrawals and the difficulties with the team, they did as well as could be expected.

"It could have been a lot worse if the results had gone otherwise. The only thing was we got a reasonable number of points and Switzerland and Russia, who are in the top two positions in the group, did not gain ground."

Kerr has had no honeymoon in his new post, inheriting a squad in turmoil with morale damaged after the autumn defeats and Mick McCarthy's departure. Victory over Scotland in a February friendly was marred by Roy Keane's thoughtless announcement of his retirement on the eve of the match, much to Kerr's anger, while these two games have been hit by six withdrawals and, to compound matters, the death of Robbie Keane's father. That meant he missed out on the cauldron of Tbilisi and was in no fit state to play against Albania, as Keane himself admitted.

"Of course I was thinking of my dad," he said. "It's only natural and anyone in my position would have done the same. You can try to get it off your mind, but it's hard." The fact that he was willing to make the trip shows that Kerr is having a positive effect.

On the field, however, there is a lack of creativity in midfield. Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella are too similar. The Irish miss Roy Keane, as a player at least. Up front, Kerr lacks options. The major plus is the defence, with Shay Given in imperious form in Tirana and Kenny Cunningham stepping assuredly into the captain's role. Still, the bulk of the squad is young.

As for their opponents, the defeated Georgians provided a threat, both on and off the field, with European football's governing body, Uefa, investigating the missile throwing, including a knife which struck Kevin Kilbane, while Albania, who drew, were more impressive and are, in both footballing and economic terms, an emerging nation.

Still there was a tinge of disappointment. Holland summed up the mood: "We came with the objective of getting two wins and I am a little disappointed that we have not done that. We have three home games in a row now and it is massively important that we get three victories."

Indeed. Nine points from hosting Albania and Georgia in June and Russia in September are a must. But, of course, this is the group of banana skins and the Irish can afford no more slip-ups.

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