Latvia threaten Charlton legend

INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL: Republic of Ireland to bank on Babb while Gould faces Germany without Rush and Hughes
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The sight of teenaged girls literally fighting over a plastic water bottle discarded by Phil Babb confirmed yesterday that football and celebrity continue to be on intimate terms in the Republic of Ireland.

Whether the relationship - and the tenure of Jack Charlton which made it possible - could withstand defeat by Latvia at Lansdowne Road tonight must be open to question.

At the age of 60, and after almost a decade of unprecedented success as manager, Charlton suddenly finds his reputation on the line in the Republic's penultimate game in Group Six of the Euro- pean Championship qualifying campaign.

Charlton remains Ireland's favourite Englishman. Banners adorn pubs boasting that theirs is "Big Jack's favourite bar". His grizzled features are still in demand with advertisers. But the last World Cup was a watershed for the Republic; no longer was it considered sufficient merely to reach the finals of major tournaments. The events leading up to Latvia's visit have therefore been a shock to the system.

Matters were proceeding well enough until the defeat of Portugal, which perhaps encouraged delusions of class in a team who are at their best when playing destructively. It was followed by June's 0-0 draw in Liechtenstein who, to put things in perspective, then lost 7-0 at home to the Portuguese. Then came two 3-1 losses to Austria, which have left Charlton's men needing to break the worst sequence of results during his reign just to maintain realistic hopes of sharing in next summer's bonanza.

Put simply, if they were to lose and Austria beat Portugal tonight, the Republic would be out. In the event of the Irish and the Austrians both winning, Charlton would still have to conjure a victory in Lisbon next month. Even if Ireland and Austria finished level on points, the latter would go through by virtue of having won both fixtures between them.

Charlton's reluctance to reveal his line-up, as he normally does the day before a match, was a sign of the stakes for which he and the Republic are playing. However, he made it clear that the over-commitment to attack which characterised his midfield in Vienna, combined with an awareness of Latvia's tendency to play on the break, have convinced him to deploy an anchoring player in midfield.

The individual whose capacity to inflict damage concerns him most is Vitaly Astafiev, "The dark-haired lad who wears No 3", as Charlton inimitably identified him. His penchant for counter-attack brought Latvia both goals in their 2-1 success in Northern Ireland, the first of three consecutive wins, with the Israeli-based Armands Zeiberlins also scoring in each of those games.

"At international level these days, players don't pass the ball through midfield - they come at you," Charlton said. "You can't let them run at your defence, but the problem is that we've no natural holding player in midfield like we used to have with Paul McGrath and Mark Lawrenson."

Ronnie Whelan would, in fact, have been ideal, but is neither fit nor in favour. The three candidates, Charlton intimated, were Babb, Jason McAteer and Jeff Kenna. McAteer, whose inclination is to go forward, scarcely fits the job description, while Kenna may be too naturally busy to maintain the requisite discipline.

Switching the pacy Babb to partner Andy Townsend has the drawback of necessitating changes to two departments. But unless Charlton was dealing in Dublin Bay red herrings again, the Liverpool defender appears the likeliest choice to plug the "hole" between midfield and a back four in which McGrath's 78th cap will bring him level with Packie Bonner's record.

Charlton has always said he would leave when the fans no longer wanted him. Whatever happens tonight, he is expected to see out the qualifying campaign. Yet even if the Republic make it to England, there are those in Ireland who would like him to announce publicly that it will be his swansong. That way, the legend could stay intact.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (probable - 4-4-2): A Kelly (Sheffield United); G Kelly (Leeds), McGrath (Aston Villa), Kernaghan, Phelan (both Manchester City); McAteer, Babb (both Liverpool), Townsend, Staunton (both Aston Villa); Quinn (Manchester City), Aldridge (Tranmere).