16.05.2002 at 00:00 Lansdowne Road
Republic of Ireland
1 - 2
Referee: Mr A.L. Costa (Portugal)
Jason Mc Ateer
Republic of Ireland 1 Nigeria 2
Ireland's sayonara, their ceremonial farewell on the eve of their World Cup departure sparked an extravaganza of surprisingly competitive action before a highly-charged 42,652 fans at Lansdowne Road last night. It was a send-off that was more muted than planned, denied as Ireland were the victory that would have provided the perfect climax to the evening’s celebrations. Nigeria inflicted only a second defeat in 20 matches on Mick McCarthy’s side and the first in Dublin since Scotland won here exactly two years ago.
Defeat was certainly a disappointment and few could quibble with the merit of Nigeria’s success; they played with an enviable flourish for an hour. But what elevated this match above the ordinary, what gave it verve and excitement and drama was the quality of Ireland’s comeback from a two-goal deficit to hammer Nigeria for the closing half-hour and go as close as made no difference to salvaging a draw.
They pounded Nigeria’s impressive defence particularly in the final ten minutes when, twice, David Connolly was denied the goal. He had the ball in the net only to be denied by an offside decision against Clinton Morrison and then, seconds before the whistle, he produced an individual virtuoso piece of skill and a flashing shot that brought out the best in keeper Shoromnu.
When it was over the stadium rocked in appreciation of a game of marvellous entertainment and rare quality. For this was a challenge in name only, it was more a flexing of muscles for psychological profit before the ultimate test for both these squads in two weeks time.
When it was over Paddy Reilly led the chorus of the ‘Fields of Athenry’, the players embraced and swopped shirts in the centre circle, the Nigeria fans jigged their conga line in celebration and the balloons soared high to mirror the rising temperature of World Cup anticipation.
It was raucous and full of the joys of life, setting the mood for the competition fast approaching. But under-lying the festive air was the reality of what had gone before in 90 minutes of intense competition.
Any delusions that this would be a relaxed stroll were quickly shattered by the hard-working attitude of Nigeria, totally focused on producing a positive result. Their concentration of pulling all 11 players behind the ball throughout testified to a team driven with ambition, intent on producing a result.
Their first-half excellence was a salutary lesson for Ireland, a harsh dose of realism ahead of a competition that promises much. They played with such grace and style in that period that their two-goal lead after 47 minutes was not so much a pin to prick the balloon of Irish expectation but a lance driven ruth-lessly to the heart of Irish ambition.
In the planning this was a challenge, a dress rehearsal, but the intended triumphal march of Ireland’s gladiators was soon transformed into a parade of Nigerian style and grandeur. Kanu, long and languid, was smoothly efficient and Jay Jay Okocha, in contrast, was busy and inventive, always probing the extremes of the Irish defence.
His investigative work was scientifically accurate as he showed in the 14th minute with a pass that set up the opening goal with deceptive ease. He stroked the ball 30 yards down the inside-left channel and Aghahowa was able to let it run past and fire it past Given from 12 yards.
Ireland were full of promise in their approach work, the accuracy of Steve Staunton’s long-passing a feature of their best work. His service ensured that Jason McAteer was regularly into the action but while Ireland created a generous flow of scoring chances they were seldom given a clear sight of Shoromnu’s goal. When they did penetrate, their finish was flawed. Robbie Keane was the principal culprit in this regard, his mis-cue when Damien Duff scythed through the left flank of Nigeria’s de-fence before pulling the ball back from the end line the most glaring example of a player desperately anxious to register.
The second goal, after 47 minutes, was a puzzle for it caught Ireland’s defence in total disarray. Ikedia floated in a corner from the right wing and with Roy Keane rooted to the deck, Sodje rose unchallenged to head comfortably into a gaping net.
The introduction of a number of Ireland’s support players helped spark a comeback of rousing proportions. Suddenly Ireland were first to the ball, Steven Reid on the right providing them with pace and penetration and Nigeria were forced into demonstrating the excellence of their admirably organised defence in the closing quarter.
Reid’s impact was such that his late introduction might well be the prelude to even more spectacular developments in the coming weeks and he took his goal splendidly.
Staunton’s long ball was instrumental in stretching the defence, Reid linked with Morrison and drove the ball home, left-footed to inspire moments of real drama and excitement as Ireland fought manfully in defence of their outstanding home record.
IRELAND(4-4-2): Given; Finnan, Cunningham, Staunton, Harte; McAteer (Reid 46), Roy Keane (Kinsella 63), Holland, Kilbane (Kelly 60); Robbie Keane (Morrison 60), Duff (Connolly 60).
NIGERIA(4-4-2): Shoromnu; Sodje, West, Okoronkwo, Opabunmi; Ikedia, Joseph, Kanu, Okocha (Oruma 66); Aghahowa, Ogbeche.
Referee: Mr A. L. Costa (Portugal).