31.03.2004 at 19:00 Lansdowne Road
Republic of Ireland
2 - 1
Referee: E.K. Fisker
Ireland 2 Czech Republic 1
A deserved win over the Czech Republic before a full house at Lansdowne Road last night represented an achievement of genuine substance for Brian Kerr's emerging young team.The home side brought the most coveted unbeaten run in European football to a shuddering halt when a trademark Robbie Keane strike two minutes into added time sent an estimated 42,000 fans home in exuberant mood.
Keane took a pass from Alan Lee wide of a defender and from the corner of the six-yard box ripped a shot across substitute goalkeeper Vaniak and low into the far corner. The Czech Republic were obliged to accept defeat for the first time in two years.
The win was confirmation of Ireland's superiority on a night when the emphasis was upon identifying potential new international forces and building confidence and self-esteem.
The results were totally positive from an Irish point of view even if the match lacked the sharp edge of competition and did not reveal anything revolutionary about Ireland's players, either individually or collectively.
Indeed the pre-match speculation on introducing new systems and developing more flexibility in Ireland's approach was scarcely relevant given their first-half deployment. They played an orthodox formation but with an unorthodox approach so it was inevitable, perhaps, that some problems should emerge.
Andy Reid did not appear totally suited to his role wide on the right of midfield principally because he is left-footed. His natural instinct was to turn infield and there was a lack of variety in Ireland's work on this flank.
Reid is a talented player and showed plenty of skill but the predictability on Ireland's right meant the Czechs were invariably comfortable on this flank.
Reid played a full part in Ireland's build-up play despite this, used the ball accurately and confidently and is clearly a player for the future. But Ireland looked to the opposite wing for penetration.
Damien Duff provided plenty of this and he was superb, bright and inventive, too elusive to be contained. His impact was enormous and was supplemented by the excellent Kevin Kilbane and Ian Harte.
There was a pleasing symmetry to Ireland's football and the inter-play between the three was sophisticated and progressive. The Czechs rarely figured as an attacking force so pre-occupied were they in curbing an aggressive Ireland.
Ireland played captivating football in an opening half when the team selections were credible and before the contest was disfigured by a rash of 12 substitutions in the second half.
Their ability to stitch long sequences of passes together while probing for a channel of intrusion into the scoring area was admirable.
The final pass always eluded a player in a green shirt, however, and Clinton Morrison looked isolated on occasions in a penalty area crowded with Czechs.
There were times when you would have expected Ireland to get more players forward and times also when Robbie Keane's desire to contribute to Ireland's build-up play assumed the proportions of an obsession.
This worked to Ireland's disadvantage on two counts. They played so well across midfield that they did not need an extra player crowding their space and Morrison suffered from a lack of support.
It was clear Keane was under instructions to remain in a more forward position in the second half and overall he had an outstanding match.
He enjoyed a telepathic understanding with Duff and Ireland's persistence in seeking to play the ball to feet in the Czech's penalty box was very welcome. Their approach had a modern, more adventurous flavour than usual.
So it came as no surprise that Ireland jumped in front after 52 minutes. Ian Harte showed his marvellous skill when he swerved a free from 20 yards around the wall of defenders and low into the corner of Vaniak's net.
Milan Baros was guilty of an extraordinary miss as the substitutions disturbed Ireland's teamwork and the Czechs stepped up their game. He turned a shot over from six yards in the 74th minute, but made amends from a suspiciously offside position seven minutes later.
It fell to Robbie Keane to set matters right and afterwards a satisfied Brian Kerr said: "We did not win any World Cup or European points but it was a very good performance and we played some smashing stuff in the first half, some lovely ground football. It was nice to finish again with a win."
Ireland (4-4-2): Given (Kenny 82); Maybury, Doherty (Miller 70), Cunningham, Harte; Andy Reid (Delap 65), Holland, Kilbane, Duff (Kinsella 76); Morrison (Lee 76), Robbie Keane.
Czech Republic (4-4-2): Cech (Vaniak 46); Jiranek (Plasil) , Bolf (Rozehnal 58), Ujfalusi, Jankulovski; Sionko (Stajner 46), Galasek, Nedved (Heinz 46), Tyce; Koller (Lokvenc 46), Baros (Vorisek 84).
A satisfying night’s work almost comes to an unsatisfactory end, as the Czechs gate-crash Brian Kerr’s press conference.The teutonic edge to their characters make the Czechs sticklers for time-keeping and Karel Bruckner dissects the game before most Irish journalists are in their seats.
Now Bruckner is over-staying his welcome. Kerr watches the scrum where he is supposed to be seated and decides on an informal gathering at the back of the room.
This is one of his finest moments as Irish manager so far, and nothing is going to spoil it.
The Czechs arrived with big reputations and Pavel Nedved. Prospective European Champions, the most technically proficient side in the world with an unbeaten record stretching back to 2001. Kerr should smile.
Football’s Patrick Swayze only lasted the first half, while Ireland were the better passing team, effectively out-Czeching the Czechs.
“We played very well,” Kerr said. “They are a very good team, and I thought we passed the ball very well. In some ways, I would say they are relieved to lose that unbeaten record and we are glad to be the team to end it.”
Going into the game with only two regular centre-halves, a situation that saw Matt Holland deputise for Gary Doherty in the second half, Kerr was effusive in praise of his defence.
“I thought our back four was very solid. We were missing seven defenders going into this game, Gary Doherty and Kenny did well as a unit, Ian did well and Alan Maybury, for someone who doesn’t play many games at this level, well it looked like he plays here regularly.”
Ian Harte, with that sweet strike in the 51st minute, gave Kerr a timely reminder of what he can do. And he never looked anything less than comfortable for the entire game.
“Well, Ian is regular enough for us. He has played some part in more than half the games since we took over. We did some set-piece work this morning and he scored a goal, and he did the same this evening. I am delighted for him,” he said.
The Czech Republic was perhaps the sternest examination yet of what Kerr calls “the re-development phase”, the attempt to put the disappointment of Euro 2004 behind them. Failure to qualify may yet be a disguised blessing, with more and more players getting some experience at the top level. Last night it was the turn of Alan Maybury and, at long last, Liam Miller.
“The idea of these matches against this sort of quality of opposition is to get players more experience. We have to make the best of the resources we have, especially with a double-header ahead of us in the World Cup qualifying campaign.
“It is easier to bring players in when you are not concentrating on a major championship. We would love to be going, but that is the way it is. We have to concentrate on our next job and that is the World Cup qualifiers.
“This is a gradual thing, some players are just starting to assert themselves, some players are still trying to get themselves back to full fitness.”
The physicality of the Czechs, footballers not only their hacks, will ensure they won’t be pushed over come Portugal in June. But Kerr was content with the way his team responded to that.
“I thought some of our attacking play was of the highest order. When you have Andy, Robbie, Clinton and Damien working together up there, it is not the most physical unit. But, they didn’t back away from the Czechs.”
Speaking of Robbie Keane, it was his sniping skills that sealed a famous victory. “We saw the whole mixture of Robbie and his bag of tricks. Some of the stuff he did with the other three up there, was of the highest level.
“His quality is shown in the fact that he has scored so many goals, 19 now,” said Kerr.
Earlier, Brockner was found in grim form. The Czechs never really lived up to the expectations of the 42,000 at Lansdowne. It is said of them they only play to whatever level their opponents are at, but Ireland played a level above them last night. Their three best players were all substituted at half-time and the second period was made up of reserve players. Or so we thought.
“They were not reserve players,” Bruckner countered. “They play for the national team and they deserve a chance to see what they can do. I thought we actually played a little better in the second half and in this respect, we did a little bit more here than the Brazilian team.”
After defeating the undefeatable French last time out, more was expected of the Czechs in Dublin. Still, there will still be some smart money going each-way on the Czech Republic between now and June. How does Bruckner assess his team’s prospects.
“Well, the first priority in any major championships is that the team get out of the group stages, the first job is to qualify after the quarter-finals. After that, you have to wait and see.”
Who knows? Come the end of June, Brian Kerr’s mid-year report may read his team drew with the world champions and beat the European champions. That would be some achievement.