Helder condemns Irish to place in play-off

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP: Republic slump to defeat but earn another chance to qualify for Euro 96
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The Independent Online

reports from the Stadium of Light, Lisbon

Portugal 3 Republic of Ireland 0

Jack Charlton's somewhat jaded Green Army have one last chance of realising their manager's ambition and qualifying for next summer's finals by beating the Netherlands in a play-off at Anfield on 13 December.

Official confirmation of the Republic's reprieve is due tomorrow when the computers spell out the details of the eight qualifying groups in the European Championship.

What will be concealed in that print-out will be the North's remarkable win over Austria in Belfast that opened an unexpected door in Benfica's Stadium of Light.

The Dutch masters, of course, saw off the Irish in the World Cup almost 18 months ago. A bogey team label did not deter Charlton afterwards: "They'll be a bogey team to a good many but Liverpool will be like a second home to us," Charlton said, masking his disappointment at last night's third defeat in Group Six.

"We're still in with a shout thanks to Bryan Hamilton's boys and I owe him a drink," Charlton added. "We should have our midfield available by then, and I should be able to pick what I could regard as my best team."

The Republic's demise to Portugal, who won the group by six points, was not totally unexpected, especially with the fervent atmosphere in Lisbon. Almost 20,000 Irish supporters did their best to repair, with their raised voices, the holes ripped in Charlton's beleaguered team.

Injuries forced Charlton to restructure his midfield, where the power and experience of Andy Townsend (plus his leadership qualities), Roy Keane and John Sheridan were clearly missed.

It proved to be the crucial zone of play in a punishing slog in appalling conditions that earlier in the day threatened to force a postponement of chaotic proportions.

The Republic's defence held out bravely until the game-turning first goal after 58 minutes. Paul McGrath, who overtook Pat Bonner's record of 78 caps, and Phil Babb have rarely played better as a pair at the heart of a defence rated second best in the Group with eleven goals conceded to Portugal's seven.

Scoring goals is another story, of course, and after an early burst of enterprise by John Aldridge and Niall Quinn without causing the highly rated goalkeeper Vitor Baia any serious problems, the Irish paid fully in the attempted salvage operation. The breakthrough goal by Rui Costa was an artistic delight - a measured lob from almost 25 yards to beat Alan Kelly who had earlier performed personal heroics with spectacular saves from Paulinho Santos and Secretario, both of Porto.

The fresh legs of Folha and Jorge Cadete in place of the strike force of Joao Pinto and Domingos after 66 gruelling minutes boosted the Portuguese who at times struggled through their own over-elaboration.

Helder, the big defender, powerfully headed the second after 74 minutes before Cadete added to the celebrations of rockets and flares a minute from the end.

Stand-in captain Steve Staunton toiled non-stop until he was replaced after 78 minutes by Alan Kernaghan whose contribution was to block a late shot by Figo on the line.

Townsend, Keane and Sheridan could all be fit for the day of destiny at Anfield. You write off the Irish at your peril.

PORTUGAL (4-2-4): Vitor Baia (Porto); Secretario (Porto), Fernando Couto (Parma), Helder (Benfica), Paulinho Santos (Porto); Paulo Sousa (Juventus), Oceano (Sporting Lisbon); Figo (Barcelona), Joao V Pinto (Benfica), Domingos (Porto), Rui Costa (Fiorentina). Substitutes: Folha (Porto) for Joao V Pinto, 66, Cadete (Sporting Lisbon) for Domingos, 66, Neno (Guimaraes) for Vitor Baia, 86.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): A Kelly (Sheffield United); G Kelly (Leeds Utd), McGrath (Aston Villa), Babb (Liverpool), Irwin (Manchester Utd); McAteer (Liverpool), Kenna (Blackburn Rovers), Staunton (Aston Villa), Kennedy (Liverpool); Quinn (Manchester City, Aldridge (Tranmere Rovers). Subsitutes: Cascarino (Marseille) for Kennedy, 74, Kernaghan (Manchester City) for Staunton, 78.

Referee: P Ceccarini (Italy).