Matt Holland: He was fit to drop, but there's no way you'd drop relentless Robbie, a national treasure

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


What a game! What a result! I don't care which one you pick, Republic of Ireland v Germany or England v Argentina. Both were superb, deserved, and very much needed. Let's hope by the end of the week we will both be in the second round.

A lot of hype preceded the Argentina match, which considering the history of the fixture and international relations was only to be expected, but when it came to the actual playing I was thrilled that England dominated the game. Not necessarily in terms of possession or passes made but in one part of the field that really counted, England's defensive third. The Argentina forwards utilised all their trickery and "cunning" but never really broke England down whereas Michael Owen had a couple of wonderful chances.

The defensive third, though, is where the match was won and two men must step forward and accept the applause. Nicky Butt and Rio Ferdinand were exceptional. That was the best game I can remember Butt playing, particularly considering that he must be short of fitness. From his first tackle, he hounded the Argentina midfielders and patrolled in front of his defence like a guard dog. He had a job to do, win control of the midfield and break up the flow of attacks, and he did it very well. Behind him Ferdinand organised the back line, made sure that either he or Sol Campbell won every header and even more impressively, played the ball out from defence calmly and shrewdly. Almost like a continental.

The phrase "a strong spine" is frequently used in football and it refers to having organised and talented players through the middle of the pitch. Well, England's spine yesterday was David Seaman, Ferdinand and Butt and they were a model of composure. Take a bow, gentlemen, because you were fantastic.

For us it was Robbie Keane. He has threatened in both games, run until exhaustion in pursuit of the ball or a half-yard gap, and then run some more. With one minute remaining he was still running and it is a testament to the hard work he does on the training pitch that his technique did not falter under pressure. To be in a position to collect Niall Quinn's flick-on header was the instinct of a true striker, but to control it as it bounced awkwardly and get plenty of power in the shot even though the ball was slightly behind him was exceptional.

Robbie was knackered, desperate and ultimately a hero. Thwarted by a post against Cameroon and aided by one against Germany, Keane's luck certainly changed. In fact I think we would have won the game but for their goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn. He made a couple of fantastic saves, one from Damien Duff that must be a contender for save of the tournament, and nearly stopped the goal.

What surprised me about the Germans was the way they sat back after taking the lead and prepared themselves to defend it. There were 70 minutes left and yet they seemed content to protect their advantage rather than trying to increase it. This gave us the initiative and momentum to attack them and Duff excelled in the space they gave him. It does not surprise us how good he is – after all we know – but I think it is surprising some opponents.

He and Keane are skilful, quick and keen to run at defenders. Admittedly, it took us until the last minute to equalise, but I felt that we had plenty of chances, plenty of possession and were worthy of the point. And how good it was for Quinn to get on the pitch? He caused their defenders problems immediately and apart from winning headers, he also wins free-kicks in good positions around the penalty area. His was a perfect 15 minutes as an impact player.

The mood in the dressing room was even better than after the Cameroon game and there is a confident spirit and feeling among the squad that was improved by the Cameroon-Saudi Arabia result. To guarantee reaching the last 16 we have to beat the Saudis by two goals.

Now complacency is not the Irish way and our preparation is as diligent as ever but if someone had offered this scenario prior to the tournament, we would have ripped their arms off.

Unfortunately, I suffered an elbow in the ribs during the match and have been unable to train until today. I did enjoy my first day off on Thursday when some of the families went to Disneyland. Jacob and Sam, my children loved it, probably more than watching me score although they would never admit it. They'd better not anyway!

Not all my memories of the World Cup are going to be football, though. After the Cameroon game and my equaliser – am I still allowed to be pleased with that? – one of the lads taught my three-year-old, Sam, to sing "there's only one Matty Holland". For the rest of that evening he proudly serenaded the squad, manager, back-up staff and families with chorus after chorus. Even I was pleased when it was time for him to go to bed.

Italy losing, Argentina losing to England, France struggling to qualify, Italy losing to Croatia, there is no shortage of stories or shocks in this World Cup. Can Ireland continue to create a few of their own? I think so and I think England can as well. Argentina have looked one of the best teams in the tournament and yet England won. First we must beat Saudi Arabia and England must play Nigeria. Can you imagine both countries in the next round? Now that really is a World Cup dream.

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