McCarthy plays down fears over pitch

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The Independent Online
The Republic of Ireland's manager, Mick McCarthy, is playing down the threat of an appalling pitch when his players launch their bid for a place in the World Cup qualifying play-offs in a match against Lithuania in Vilnius today. When the Irish team arrived for a training session at the Zalgiris stadium where the Group Eight clash with Lithuania will take place, they were met by the sight of overgrown grass, bare goalmouths and the penalty spots four feet off centre.

McCarthy will not name his team until just before kick-off although he has few options, with his captain, Andy Townsend, defender Jeff Kenna and winger Mark Kennedy suspended after the win in Iceland.

That victory has put the Irish back within touching distance of clinching second place in Group Eight. If they beat Lithuania, only a massive defeat by already-qualified Romania in Dublin next month, plus a runaway victory by Lithuania in Macedonia, can prevent McCarthy's team reaching a two- leg clash with the runners-up from one of the other groups in late October and early November. McCarthy said: "It is close to do-or-die now. But it is the same for Lithuania. As home team I think the pressure is on them. We always go out to win a match but a draw will not be a bad result. It will mean all the hype that goes with trying to qualify gets carried over to the last match against Romania. I would settle for that although it would be great to complete the job tomorrow night."

McCarthy looks certain to recall Liverpool's Jason McAteer to fill Townsend's midfield role and Denis Irwin, Manchester United's experienced full-back, to replace Kenna. But the loss of Kennedy, a match-turning second-half substitute in Reykjavik but sent off for dissent, means the change of shape to the starting line-up.

He could recall Everton's Terry Phelan, out since being dropped after the shock 3-2 defeat in Macedonia in April, for a place in a five-man midfield or push Steve Staunton forward from left-back.

Staunton could also get McCarthy's vote as temporary captain in the absence of Townsend although Roy Keane's name has been touted. McCarthy refuses to reveal the identity of the new leader and said: "If I do that there will be an inquest about why somebody else has not got it. It is not a big issue for me but it could bring another pressure on the lads which I am determined to avoid."