Lisbon holds key to Republic's fate

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Fear, tension, euphoria, relief. The Republic of Ireland experienced a gamut of emotions in the course of defeating Latvia in Dublin. That was nerve-racking enough. The climax to Group Six threatens to be the stuff of coronaries.

Before their summer collapse, the Republic were perhaps tempted to view next month's visit to Portugal as a celebratory jaunt. A few days in the autumn sun at Estoril, then into Lisbon to toast the formality of qualification for another beano: the European Championship finals in England.

It looks different now. The travel agents may have been ecstatic that there is still all to play for; they expect to transport 4,000 fans to the Stadium of Light. But Jack Charlton, who later admitted that he would "probably" resign if the Republic failed to make it, could muster no more than: "It's nice to be in with a shout."

The bottom line, as Big Jack is wont to say, is that his team must beat Portugal to finish top and guarantee their progress. A draw might be enough to take them through as runners-up, especially if Northern Ireland upset Austria. Two years ago it was the Republic who went to Belfast to secure the point that confirmed their passage to the World Cup.

This time, they could yet be forced as one of the two second-placed teams with the worst records to play-off at Anfield on 15 December.

Charlton is not a man for musing on the maths of it all. Nor is he the type of who, needing a win, sets out to secure it by swashbuckling attack. His instinct, honed over years of backs-to-the-wall miserliness with Don Revie's Leeds, is to counsel caution and damage-limitation.

He was under the impression that Portugal had already qualified. In fact, having lost at Lansdowne Road and with results between the leading teams counting in the event of their finishing level on points, they will be desperate to avoid a defeat which could see them squeezed out.

If Wednesday's match proves to be Charlton's last in Dublin, the best that can be said is that the Republic won. He appeared almost obsessed beforehand by the problems one of Europe's fledgling nations might cause. His players, unsurprisingly, looked short of confidence and lacked the old intensity before scoring.

John Aldridge stayed calm to dispatch a penalty and soon headed a second, though Niall Quinn was the unsung hero. Artur Zakreshevskis stuck to him like a tattoo, and a more volatile striker might have been screaming for a penalty at the instant Quinn selflessly set up Steve Staunton in the prelude to the breakthrough.

Trepidation swept across the stadium like a shadow after a late Latvian reply. Tracing its origins back to an Irish cross that the visiting keeper picked off, Charlton let slip the kind of confession which may count against him when the dust settles on this campaign and, possibly, his nine-year reign.

"The ball should never have been delivered to that area," he said. "We should've been playing for corners then. It's not my way to be positive. Not at that stage. It's bloody common sense."

n Bryan Hamilton, the Northern Ireland manager, has promised the Republic his team will try to help them qualify by beating Austria in Belfast on 15 November. "I will say good luck to Jack and the Republic if they qualify," he said. "I felt all along that Portugal and the Republic would go through. They were the best teams in the group."