10.11.2001 at 18:00 Lansdowne Road
Republic of Ireland
2 - 0
Referee: A Pereira da Silva (Brazil)
World Cup Play Off / Prog-match
Jason Mc Ateer
Republic of Ireland 2
When you get to a play-off for the World Cup finals it is far more important to arrive safely than to travel in comfort. Ireland learned at Lansdowne Road on Saturday that the road to Japan and South Korea is a rocky one and fraught with danger.
The diversion to Tehran clearly represents a potentially fatal hazard. Two goals represent a generous tank of fuel but any wrong turning, however minor, could stretch Ireland's resources beyond their capacity. Their navigation, their route planning, need to be perfect.
The dramatic events of Saturday invested this fascinating tie with still more intrigue, still more mystery. The result clearly still hangs in the balance and a second half of total contrast awaits. What a test lies ahead for Ireland.
Ireland did well to build a two goals lead; still better to deny a skilful Iran the encouragement of an 'away' goal. They could not have complained had Iran knocked them on both counts.
Shay Given performed heroics to ensure the debit column was kept clean. His two second half saves in the space of a couple of minutes from the adroit Ali Karimi were remarkable and hugely influential. Those saves might prove to be the permit that facilitates Irish entry to the Far East next Summer.
The inscrutable Ian Harte wrecked Iran's attempts to frustrate Ireland, he and Mr. Perpetual Motion himself, Jason McAteer. The winger forced the penalty, the composed full-back kept his nerve, while a nation fretted, to exact full retribution.
The clock showed 44 minutes had elapsed when Harte exploded his shot past goalkeeper Mirzapour and it is not an exaggeration to say that Ireland's magical mystery tour was within 60 seconds of being derailed. Had Iran held them scoreless to half-time the resulting swing in emotions within the dressing-rooms might have proved decisive.
As it was Ireland emerged enlivened by their success and eager for a re-engagement. The ten minutes after half-time represented the high-point, when their football was invested with an urgency that threatened to overwhelm Iran.
Twice Robbie Keane was close before he succeeded in ending his long drought in an Irish shirt. A free-kick was spun from the right into the crowded goalmouth, a posse of defenders knocked it away from Niall Quinn and Robbie controlled it quickly before rifling the ball home from 22 yards.
Fifty minutes had elapsed and Ireland now were on full throttle. Kevin Kilbane suddenly took centre stage near the penalty spot with a lightning turn and left foot shot that flew narrowly over and it looked as if Ireland's journey was all downhill.
It was a false impression, however, as Iran erected effective roadblocks, deflecting Ireland down narrow side-streets that led nowhere. With good technique, excellent passing and clever movement they opened up the Irish defence to test Given and later to create a chance better than anything produced by Ireland only for Bagheri to shoot wide four minutes from time.
Iran were highly impressive, particularly in their disciplined implementation of Miroslav Blazevic's game plan and their resolute defending. They coped brilliantly with the aerial threat of Niall Quinn, regularly through using two jumpers to negative the big centre-forward.
They also prevented Ireland from making full use of their wingers by defending very deep so there was no room for McAteer or Kilbane to sprint beyond them. Their alignment forced Ireland in-field, into heavy traffic in the centre of Iran's defence and with Ali Daei breaking quickly to support Karimi they forced Ireland's full-backs to stay at home.
Ireland were below their best, the inevitable anxiety attending such a big occasion and the frenzy generated by the emotional fans, causing them to hurry their work. Their desire to succeed was most obvious in the work of Robbie Keane who undermined his huge contribution by essaying too much at times.
Keane represents Ireland's best hope of successfully negotiating the next, demanding stage of this captivating adventure. Now Iran must lighten their defence in search of the two goals they need to regain equality. Keane, his explosive strike positive evidence of his huge potential, will surely find more room in Tehran to work his magic. One goal for Ireland would leave Iran needing four and would surely prove decisive. The signposts are very clear and Ireland are firmly in the driving seat.
Republic of Ireland (4-2-4): Given; Finnan, Breen, Staunton (Cunningham 75), Harte; McAteer (Kelly, 83), Roy Keane, Holland, Kilbane; Robbie Keane, Quinn.
SCORERS: Harte (44, pen), Robbie Keane (50).
Iran (3-5-2); Mirzapour; Peyrovani, Golmohamadi, Rahman Rezai; Mahdavikia, Bagheri, Kavianpour, Minavand, Vahedinikbahkt (Khaziravi, 46); Ali Karimi, Ali Daei.
Referee: A. Pereira da Silva (Brazil).
Ireland's two goal lead over Iran in the World Cup play-off was rendered a little more fragile yesterday with the confirmation that Roy Keane is out of the second leg in Tehran on Thursday. The inspirational team skipper reported an adverse reaction to his injured knee after the game at Lansdowne Road and returned to Old Trafford yesterday for treatment and consultation with his medical advisers. He warned his colleagues: ''You have to play better than we did on Saturday night.''
Manager Mick McCarthy released the negative news bulletin by saying: "Roy has returned to Manchester because his knee was stiff and sore from the exertions of the match. It would not be right to expect him to play two games in six days and we will have to carry on without him."
There was further disappointment with doubts expressed about Niall Quinn's state of health. He damaged his suspect back early in the game and it is feared he will not be recovered in time to play. But Steve Staunton was more optimistic.
Staunton was forced out of the game in the second-half by what was feared was a hamstring pull, but a more thorough examination of the injury, at the squad base in Citywest yesterday, revealed he was suffering from sciatica. He is expected to be fully recovered by Thursday.
McCarthy said he would not be calling up a replacement for Keane and will have 23 players in the travelling party that leaves Dublin today for Tehran.
Said Keane: ''We would have taken 2-0 before the start but it means we are only halfway there. We know we can play much better than we did and now we've got to prove it.
"It will certainly be a different type of game in Tehran. The lads have got to keep it tight for the first-half and keep the crowd quiet. That's important.
"But we need to make their defence work as well and we can't afford to hit it too long as we did sometimes, especially in the first-half, on Saturday. That just puts too much pressure on big Niall Quinn.
"A quick away goal would be ideal but the tactics are up to the manager and we'll have to wait and see.''
It is beyond doubt that Keane showed typical courage and moral fortitude even by playing in the first leg. While he said before the game that the injured knee had shown a significant improvement in the days immediately before the game, he must have been hindered by it. Certain also is that United's manager Alex Ferguson took a generous attitude to the player's desires.
As late as last Tuesday serious doubts were expressed in Manchester about Keane's prospects of playing, but the importance of the match and the player's own determination to do all in his power to assist in qualifying for the next year's finals in Japan and South Korea, provoked a typically spirited response from him.
The likelihood is that Keane suspected he would be unable to play in both matches and it seems significant now that all attempts to persuade him to discuss this possibility were countered by his comment: "I'm looking no further ahead than the Lansdowne match.
"I'm here to play in both matches if I can," he said, "and I expect to be on the plane to Tehran. But we'll take it one game at a time and then wait to see whether there is any reaction from the knee."
It was suggested yesterday that Keane will play only in United's two Champions League games before Christmas before going under the surgeon's knife. It is certain that he will not be seen again in an Irish shirt before next summer when, hopefully, he will lead the team in the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea. Ireland have several friendlies tentatively arranged if they qualify but the team captain will obviously not be involved.
The withdrawal of Keane leaves the way open for a return to action by Mark Kinsella, who missed the qualifying games against Netherlands and Cyprus because of injury. He was kept out of the Iran match by the good form of his replacement Matt Holland.
Now Kinsella is an automatic replacement and he and partner Holland will carry increased responsibility in the absence of their captain. But more intriguing is how McCarthy will react to the likely withdrawal of Niall Quinn.
The big centre-forward, who was winning his 87th cap, will continue to receive intensive physio treatment on his back from now until Thursday. It was revealed he was in pain after receiving a knock early in the match against Iran and was in some discomfort in the Irish dressing-room at half-time.
McCarthy will probably have to decide whether to stick to his regular formation by nominating a centre-forward replacement for Quinn in either David Connolly or Clinton Morrison. Alternatively he can operate with Robbie Keane playing a lone role up front and beef up midfield with an extra player.
The absence of Keane might well tempt him to start, at least, with an extra midfielder in the hope of frustrating Iran. In that event the likely course of action is to play Jason McAteer as a third force in the middle with Gary Kelly, his replacement late in the game on Saturday, on the right wing.
Ireland had a light training session yesterday in Baldonnel but most of their time was spent receiving treatment from the Irish physios. They will work out this evening when they arrive in Tehran and while the prospect of this second leg before more than 100,000 fans is one to excite any professional, the challenge will be enormous.
* Today's Aer Lingus flight will have 23 luxury ''leg-room'' seats on board for the exclusive use of the players on the seven-hour flight to Iran, a privilege only previously granted to FAI officials until, ironically, Roy Keane complained about the disparity following the long trip to Cyprus for their World Cup qualifier there in April.