MACEDONIA …………………… 0
REP. OF IRELAND ……………… 2
Robbie Keane put national pride before personal glory after firing his Irish team ever closer to a first major finals appearance in 10 years next summer.
Keane insisted victory was everything as Ireland maintained their European Championship push at the top of the Group B table thanks to his two record breaking goals in Skopje on Saturday night.
The Irish captain moved two goals clear of Bobby Charlton as international football’s top scorer from Ireland and Britain as he avenged previous heartache in Macedonia.
Keane has now scored 51 times for his country but he maintained: “It is always nice to score goals but the most important thing for me tonight was not the record but the three points.
“The win was always going to be more important than Robbie Keane scoring any goals tonight.
“I’ll enjoy the record in the future but for now I want to appreciate this win. It was an important one for us.”
Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni hailed Keane as one of the best players he has ever worked with after his captain rewrote the history books in Skopje.
“I said when I took over Ireland that Robbie was up there with Totti, yes he is one of the best strikers in the world,” said Trapattoni.
“His goals tonight were so important for us. We knew that Russia had won before we played so it was vital that we got the win.
“Now I want to go to Moscow in September knowing that we can top the group.”
Keane hit the record as the Irish finally won a game in Macedonia at the third time of asking and exorcised some painful ghosts into the bargain.
Keane’s 50th and 51st goals proved crucial as Ireland, missing several big names through suspension, injury and lack of interest, made it nine competitive games unbeaten away from home for Trap.
Captain Keane had waited 12 years for this and boy did Ireland enjoy it.
He was here as a teenager when Mick McCarthy’s team conceded a last gasp equaliser to Goran Stavrevski in a 1-1 draw that cost them automatic qualification for the Euro 2000 finals.
The first time they were here, in 1997, Jason McAteer was sent off in a 3-2 defeat so bad that for years afterwards, the worst player in training had to wear an ‘I Had A Macedonia’ t-shirt.
The bitter boot was on the other foot on Saturday night as Keane and the visitors finally enjoyed the luck of the Irish in a stadium rebuilt and renamed since they were here last.
The first goal was a 25 yard effort in the seventh minute that deflected off Novevski, not that the Irish striker will ever admit as much.
The second was mostly of Macedonia’s own making as Keane took advantage of a terrible backpass from the hapless Novevski to grab his second.
Proof that the Gods had changed sides came in the 40th minute when John O’Shea was penalized for kicking Pandev but Trickovski’s spot-kick smashed off the cross bar with Given finally beaten.
Given – troubled by an early groin injury – followed Keane’s lead with superb saves from Pandev, Popov and Trickovski as Ireland finally took something tangible from this Balkan state.
Macedonia: Bogatinov; Sikov, Novevski, Grncarov, Popov; Demiri, Sumullikoski, Despotovski; Trickovski, Pandev, Naumovski. Subs. – Hasani for Naumovski 10 mins; Durovski for Despotovski 56 mins; Savic for Demiri 73 mins.
Rep. of Ireland: Given; Kelly, O’Shea, O’Dea, Kilbane; Hunt, Andrews, Whelan, McGeady; Keane, Cox. Subs. – Long for Cox 64 mins.
Referee – Florian Meyer, Germany.