Ireland 1 Cyprus 0
A SINGLE goal was enough to clinch three points for Ireland in this Group Eight World Cup qualifier against Cyprus at Croke Park last Wednesday,
but new boss Giovanni Trapattoni lived very dangerously in what was a pretty forgettable game.
Damien Duff's artistry set up Robbie Keane for a simple header after just four minutes, and it proved the only goal of the game although both sides went on to create clear-cut chances.
Trapattoni's big gamble was to play an inexperienced holding pair in the center of midfield. Glenn Whelan and Darren Gibson held down the middle while Duff and Aiden McGeady offered width.
It was great to see two wingers on view, but as the game wore on Cyprus began to dominate possession. Whelan and Gibson were forced into purely defensive roles, and Ireland's midfield was overrun for long stretches of the second half.
What was most puzzling was the Irish manager's reluctance to make a
tactical change. As in Montenegro, he opted against bringing in fresh legs late on when several players -- particularly McGeady -- looked burnt out. The bench offered a few options -- Stephen Hunt, Andy Reid or Liam Miller -- but he stuck with the starting eleven until Caleb Folan was introduced well into injury time. And he got away with it, thanks to a fortunate reflex stop by Shay Given and two immense blocks by Richard Dunne. In the end Ireland survived, but despite a genuine effort by each individual player this was no assured team performance.
By playing a 4-4-2 formation that frequently resembled 4-2-4, there was a lack of balance to the team. Keane dropped deep and Kevin Doyle was often left stranded up front with nobody in support to follow up his knock-ons.
Doyle's work-rate was incomparable, however, and he closed down defenders all evening, ready to lead the line and pounce on any hesitancy at the back.
Cyprus, who were unlucky to lose to Italy, had their preparations unsettled
by injury to playmaker Efstathios Aloneftis and suspension to the free-scoring Charalambides. They have come a long way since the days Ireland would ritually trounce them -- in fact the last goal-fest between the sides was an infamous 5-2 reversal for Ireland in Nicosia.
And when they last played in Croke Park Steve Finnan plucked an injury-time equalizer in a fixture that marked the end of
the road for Steve Staunton's managerial career.
It presented an awkward test for the home side and 55,000 fans showed up on a calm, damp night. It started so well with McGeady cutting in from the right and Duff leaving Lambros Lambrou for dead inside the box with a chipped cross that eluded goalkeeper Giorgallidis and invited Keane to nod into an empty net.
Eight minutes later Duff and Doyle combined, but the center-forward headed over the bar. Cyprus then showed they could play. Dimitris Christofi linked with Constantinou and his snap shot can-
noned off Given's chest. Constantinou fluffed the rebound, but it was a reminder that the visitors had ambitions of their own in Dublin.
Ioannis Okkas then skipped past right-back Paul McShane and found himself without support inside the box. He shot tamely at Given, just as Duff and McGeady had done minutes earlier.
Shay Given was the busier of the two goalkeepers. He fisted away a teasing cross by Marios Ilia, but Ireland looked certain for a second goal when McGeady opened up space on the right, only to see his deflected cross brilliantly headed off the line with Duff lurking nearby. A lot of Doyle's work was in safer areas, but he did turn smartly to fire over the bar with a rising shot.
Most of the second half belonged to the Cypriots. Dunne made a great block on Christofi four min-
utes after the restart, and he did the same soon afterwards when Makridis and Papathana-siou set up Constantinou for a drive inside the box. The center half, partnered by John O'Shea, is never found wanting for commitment, but with Ir-eland's midfield struggling, the visitors were able to mount a series of attacking moves.
Keane failed to release the unmarked Duff on a 64th minute break, and in a promising Irish move involving Keane, Duff and Whelan, McGeady fired first time over the bar. The Celtic winger was tiring visibly and allowed Cyprus press from the left side of midfield, but the win was secured.
Questions remain about Trapattoni's tactical approach and his refusal to adjust the team shape when midfield was struggling. "It is a great victory," he enthused afterwards. "Cyprus played well. All their players played with confidence but our defenders were very strong. We didn't have any real difficulties."
Whatever about the quality of performance, the home win was made all the sweeter by news of Bulgaria's scoreless draw in Georgia. Italy recorded a hard-fought 2-1 win over Montenegro in Lecce.
The next game in Group Eight will be February 11 next year when Ireland host Georgia . . .
NORTHERN Ireland got back on track with a comfortable 4-0 win over San Marino at Windsor Park. David Healy opened up with his 35th international goal. Grant McCann and Kyle Lafferty added one apiece in each half and Steven Davis capped off the win with a neat back flick for the fourth.