02.06.2001 at 00:00 Lansdowne Road
Republic of Ireland
1 - 1
World Cup Qualifier / Prog-match
Skill was the critical arbiter at Lansdowne Road where Portugal settled conclusively the relative standings in Group Two of the World Cup qualifying group.Ireland escaped with a precious point on a day when they might have been overwhelmed on the scoreboard as they were for most of an extraordinary contest.
Portugal were defied by some heroic Irish defensive work and denied by some outrageous ill-luck in a turbulent first half that was chastening indeed from an Irish point of view. Then, after a spirited Irish rally had yielded an unlikely lead goal through Roy Keane, the sudden prospect of an upset win emerged.
When all was settled, however, Portugal showed there was no substitute for sheer ability as they systematically set up a clinical equalising goal for Luis Figo in intimidating circumstances.
Hopes of qualifying for the finals next year were sustained by the point that Ireland gained, but now the challenge from Netherlands looms large and menacing. Everything suggests that next September's confrontation with the Dutch will be critical, for Portugal must now be acknowledged favourites to win the group.
Before then, however, Ireland must successfully cope with the challenge of Estonia on Wednesday in Tallinn and that will not be easy. The fact that Netherlands had to depend upon three goals in the closing four minutes to win there on Saturday will serve as a warning and more worrying for Ireland will be the absence of team captain Roy Keane.
The yellow card he earned for petulantly throwing the ball to indicate his displeasure at a questionable free kick award just before half-time was his second of the campaign and he must serve an automatic ban. His importance to Ireland against Portugal suggested they are ill-equipped to cope with his loss.
Credit must be given to Ireland for the plucky way they carried the fight to Portugal for the first 25 minutes of the second half, but the overall performance was less than inspiring.
First half they were given a chasing by a talented and stylish Portugal who ruled midfield through some captivating work by Rui Costa and accurate distribution from Petit. There was a shape, a focus and a tempo to their game that reduced Ireland to the role of spectators for long periods and the defensive unit was under constant threat as Figo and Pauleta dovetailed well with their midfield.
Rui Costa struck an upright, Given saved brilliantly from Pauleta who later succeeded in missing the target from 10 yards when it seemed easier to score as Portugal failed to translate their superiority into goals. It was a failing that almost cost them heavily.
Ireland were so fragmented as a team in the first half that one had to sympathise with the defenders who struggled to find an available recipient when they won possession and sought to advance. But they battled with typical stubbornness and their persistence paid off in the form of a much more unified response when they turned to take advantage of the strong wind.
Roy Keane's goal after 66 minutes was a huge encouragement and the reward for another excellent individual performance but Ireland reacted negatively to the goal. They lost the impetus they had gained, withdrew deeper into defence and when manager Mick McCarthy attempted to arrest the decline with substitutions it all back-fired.
Portugal dominated the closing 20 minutes when Rui Costa again blossomed and Figo took a more committed interest. Figo set up the goal by feeding Joao Pinto wide on the right and when his cross was charged down, Frechaut gained possession to cross precisely for Figo to head the equaliser in the 79th minute.
McCarthy has never been known to shirk responsibility and he admitted afterwards his attempt to influence the trend by substitutions had back-fired. His opposite number, Antonio Oliveira, must be concerned at Portugal's continued inability to find an effective spearhead for their attack, but he could look back with satisfaction on the positive contributions of three young debutants who coped well with a difficult assignment - goalkeeper Ricardo, Frechaut and Petit.
Four dropped points could mean another dreaded play-off.KEVIN KILBANE calls him a colossus. Shay Given grins when reminded of his 50-yard dash in Petit's slipstream and crunching, saving tackle before the Portuguese midfielder could shoot.
No team tottering around the top tier in international football could be termed a one-man team. All the same, there were times on Saturday when Ireland came pretty close. What a man, though. Roy Keane's display, sealed with the opening goal, was simply awesome. The only blot an unfortunate booking. Keane has proven himself as the type who only speaks when he has something to say, but it is difficult to believe he had nothing to disclose about Saturday's performance. As he left the dressing-room, he was not going to be detained, however. "Not today, lads," he muttered and he was gone in a gust. We won't see him in an Irish shirt again until the Dutch arrive in Dublin and suddenly, a battling Irish victory in Tallin is a harder proposition than anyone could imagine.
Of course, Keane didn't need to say much. The way he barked at everyone as green shirts sank deeper and deeper into their own half after his strike and the way he stormed from the pitch spoke volumes. Not best-pleased is a diplomatic description of the skipper's reaction. Sometimes, being head and shoulders above the rest of your team is tough. How much better was Keane than anyone else on the pitch on Saturday, apart from Rui Costa, who showed himself to be Portugal's Keane. Well, it takes greatness to recognise greatness and one of the greatest of them all, Eusebio, took Keane's jersey back to Lisbon as a souvenir of his visit. "He is our best player by a mile," Shay Given maintained. "Just world-class. He is a huge loss for Wednesday night, but Mattie Holland and Mark Kinsella can come in and do a job, not in the same class.
"Roy is in a class of his own, but we will have to compensate and pull together as a team. The Estonians will look at us and think they don't have their star man, which is true, but hopefully we can still get the three points." One of the biggest problems with Keane's absence is if things go awry in Tallin, who will be there to knit the team together, to encourage and cajole. "That's one of his biggest assets to this team. Some players need that and he keeps the whole thing ticking over with some warm words," the goalie said.
Early in the match, the Newcastle keeper had some warm words of his own and they went in the direction of Steve Staunton and Richard Dunne. The make-shift central defence had Lansdowne sweating before and during the match. It took a while for them to settle.
"It took a little while for us to get it together, but I thought we developed more as a partnership in the second half, it took some time," Dunne said.
"Everyone knew we had to do better, to step it up in the second half and that is what we tried to do."
Following the goal, however, Ireland retreated into their own half, played the dangerous game of allowing Portugal possession. McCarthy, roaring from the touchline, and Keane, barking on the pitch, could see it back-fire. "Yeah, we sat back a little deep and we tried not to do that, so it was disappointing to concede the goal," Dunne felt.
Disappointment is a prevailing mood. "When we got the goal, it looked like we were getting on top of the game," Kilbane said. "The wind played a major factor, but we are disappointed to lose it after going ahead. The introduction of Damien Duff was a key factor, he looked sharp and lively and caused them a considerable amount of trouble when he came on. So, it was the turning point of the game as far as we are concerned."
Two points from two games against Portugal is still a good return, as Kilbane asserts, they are the best side he has ever played against. However, those four dropped points could mean another one of those dreaded play-offs, although the flying winger remained upbeat about Ireland's qualification hopes. "All this means is we have to win all our matches now, and that includes Holland here in Dublin. If we do that, it will go down to the wire and we will be in a great position." Ian Harte, who had become a public hate figure in Portugal over the past week, laughed at the suggestions made by Antonio Oliveria that he shouldn't have been playing. His fourth tussle with Figo and his reputation is still intact. Figo pulled the strings whenever his feet touched the ball, the whole Portugal side seemed to become more alive.
Harte wasn't shrinking, though, even offering Figo a hand when he appeared to dislocate his shoulder and pop it back in the socket - all in the space of 45 seconds. "I couldn't believe what their manager said, I just laughed," Harte said. "And I had to help Figo up a few times, you need to do that when a player dives like that." Did the Leeds wing-back feel Ireland sat back too deep after Keane's goal? "It was difficult, because they kept pouring forward and we were trying to keep our shape. We knew the pressure was going to be intense for the final period."