Two and a half eventful weeks after the leaving of Dublin, the Republic of Ireland's Mick McCarthy knows what it means to be a manager at the World Cup, and why half the coaches at the last one lost their job. This afternoon, after a creditable 1-1 draw against Cameroon on Saturday, his team will discover the standard of football required at this level, when they play their second match in Group E, against Germany.
A second draw, with Saudi Arabia to play in the final game, would be more than acceptable, but is, unfortunately, not on offer at this stage. Worse, the eight goals that Rudi Völler's side put past the Saudis are worth an extra point, which makes avoiding defeat today all the more important. To that end, there are tricky decisions to be made in team selection. "Everybody's OK," McCarthy said, but Gary Breen and, to a lesser extent, Jason McAteer, did not look it after suffering a hamstring strain and knee injury respectively against Cameroon.
While the manager does not normally like to change either personnel or tactics in deference to the opposition, it would make sense to stop Christian Ziege rampaging down the left by playing Steve Finnan and Gary Kelly on that flank instead of McAteer; similarly, if Breen is even a fraction from full fitness, Andy O'Brien's extra aerial ability would make him a better deputy against the powerful German forwards than Kenny Cunningham.
"It's a huge game for us," McCarthy said. "But it's our performance that counts." He will also stress to his players that having won the World Cup three times should not help today's opponents once the first whistle blows, and that they could even fall into a trap that has snared others in the past: "Sometimes people have thought 'we're only playing Ireland' and then they get their arses kicked."
The Netherlands and Portugal, Croatia and Yugoslavia, are among those who have suffered a boot up the backside in the last few years. Those were all memorable occasions and, as someone who captained his country to a quarter- final against the hosts in Rome 12 years ago, McCarthy thought he understood the enormity of the World Cup. Only now, however, does he fully appreciate what it is like to be sitting in Jack Charlton's seat. "The last two competitions, I laughed that 50 per cent of the managers went during or after the tournament, but now I fully understand the reason why. The whole thing is a goldfish bowl, with pressures that aren't there normally. Everything's magnified. It tests you. And I hope to emerge from it a better manager."
For someone who claims not to be sensitive, or care what any critics say, Ireland's manager of the past six years has a remarkably detailed knowledge of the verbal bullets fired in his direction. He may also be aware that having banished a national icon before the competition, even with every justification, has left him vulnerable should Ireland fail to reach the second round at least. "I'm bullet-proof," he claimed yesterday. "I've been hit with that many shots, no more can go in. Nothing's really going to bother me, whatever anybody says. My shield's grown over the last six years. But the real test is about footballers, about the Irish international team and 31 others playing as well as they can."
Ireland will need to do that against a team growing in confidence again after the potentially damaging loss of so many players. As Steve Staunton said yesterday: "Germany are a very good side. They've had one bad result in 20 years, when England scored five very good goals, and everybody's highlighted it. Although we don't fear them, they're a lot better side than everyone's making out."
To Staunton will fall the task of subduing Miroslav Klose, whose hat-trick against some dreadful Saudi defending caused the odds against him winning the tournament's golden boot to come tumbling down. That would leave his partner – be it Breen, O'Brien or Cunningham – to battle Carsten Jancker.
Ian Harte, suspect defensively, must stop the right wing-back Bernd Schneider from breaking down his flank and supplying the crosses, and the midfield pair Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella will need to perform every bit as impressively as against Cameroon on Saturday against Dietmar Hamann and his cohorts.
"Ireland will be a completely different proposition compared to Saudi Arabia, as they showed with their good performance against Cameroon," said Völler. "But they are a typical British team as they play the classic 4-4-2 line-up, using good, fast strikers. We compiled enough information on them a while ago though, partly through Christian Ziege and Dietmar Hamann, while coach Uli Stielike watched them against Cameroon."
One goal on the break and the result the Irish need would be on the cards. Whichever way it goes in the first competitive international between the two countries, McCarthy will be left in no doubt that this is the real thing.
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