Republic fight the unknown

INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL: Charlton's team face re-emerging force but Scotland are confident of seeing off minnows
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The Independent Online
The Republic of Ireland waits and wonders today, uncertain of what to expect from its visitors from Portugal. It fears the exuberant qualities of one of Europe's re-emerging forces while suspecting they might reveal a soft centre if sufficiently pressured. Jack Charlton is in the same boat. He wishes he knew more about the team that threatens to consign the Irish to second place in the race for the European Championship finals.

An accumulation of events has denied Ireland's manager the chance to personally assess the Lansdowne Road opposition. Never one to worry unduly about what lies over the half-way line, Charlton concedes that a lack of knowledge this time leaves him feeling more vulnerable than usual.

The rivals in Group Six have been occupied on similar dates so far. But what really jars is that Charlton arrived in the Netherlands for a coaching seminar in February the day after Portugal played, and beat, the host nation in a friendly international. Even the video of that fixture has not been entirely helpful. "It is such a bad picture I was able to see the shape of their game but not the individual players," he said.

For a number of reasons, including the emergency that's preoccupied the Football Association of Ireland following the abandoned fixture with England, Charlton was not informed of their visit to the Netherlands. "I prefer to have seen the team we are playing and to know what they are at but I expect them to chase us a bit and break quickly."

After last month's surrender of two points against their neighbours from the North, the Republic dare not produce another poor performance today against the leaders of their section. It could put their qualifying place at risk of a revival from Northern Ireland or Austria.

With that in mind Charlton welcomed the opportunity to remind his players of the fundamentals and what first won them their reputation as cussed competitors. The return of Ray Houghton and John Aldridge - combined ages, 69, combined caps collection, 124 - helps.

Houghton, back for the first time since the World Cup finals, replaces the injured Roy Keane while Aldridge takes over from David Kelly. "There are certain crucial areas we have to be aware of or they will punish us, and the people I have picked are experienced enough to know that," Charlton added.

"Ray will run himself into the ground while if you are looking for someone to snap something up then John is the man."

The bulk of the Portuguese, who are unbeaten after four games and in their last tie slammed eight goals past Liechtenstein, are drawn from two clubs, Bobby Robson's Porto and Benfica. Their hopes rest largely on their Italian exiles, Rui Costa and Paulo Sousa, as well as Figo, who is at the centre of a transfer scrap between Juventus and Parma.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (v Portugal, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, today): A Kelly (Sheffield Utd); G Kelly (Leeds), McGrath (Aston Villa), Babb (Liverpool), Irwin (Man Utd); Houghton (Crystal Palace), Sheridan (Sheff Wed), Townsend, Staunton (Aston Villa); Quinn (Man City), Aldridge (Tranmere).

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