By Bill George
THE ebullient form of Ireland’s baby-faced assassins, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, is what most of all sustains Irish hopes of continuing their remarkable run against Spain tomorrow in the World Cup round of sixteen.
It is true that several other Irish players and, indeed, manager Mick McCarthy have also been in the form of their lives, but Duff and Keane have been exceptional.
Their influence has elevated Ireland to a level beyond anyone’s expectations. There is every reason to believe they, and Ireland, have still more to offer.
And if they ever needed a set of circumstances to inspire them and a stage on which to express themselves, then the splendid stadium in Suwon will tomorrow marry the two influences to hopefully propel them to greatness.
What a joy to see Ireland match the best in the world - not just for spirit, determination and courage but for skill.
For probably the first time in my experience Ireland possess an attacking force of compelling skill and explosive power.
When have we had a forward with the pace and elusiveness of Duff? His second half performance against Germany was magnificent, his second half performance against Saudi Arabia was the stuff of dreams.
Add in the scoring potential of Keane and Ireland have a cocktail calculated to make any defence dizzy.
A tournament of sustained excitement and repeated surprises continued apace yesterday as Japan and South Korea both qualified for the final round of sixteen in the most spectacular fashion to spark off huge celebrations in both countries and lift this particular festival of football into the realm of make-believe.
Now, happily, this World Cup offers Ireland a captivating opportunity to continue their history-making run when they play mighty Spain in Suwon tomorrow for a place in the quarter-finals.
Spain’s attractive style has distinguished this tournament, the technique and effectiveness of Raul, Morientes, Valeron, Mendieta, Xavi have helped spotlight the potential of the team, a potential that suggests they have the ability to finally crush the notion that Spanish teams cannot execute on the big stage.
Mick McCarthy smiled ruefully when asked to evaluate Spain, digging into his memories of his own involvement in the World Cup of 1990 in Italy to illustrate his point. He recalled the build-up then to Ireland’s quarter-final against Italy in the intimidating atmosphere of the Olympic Stadium, Rome.
“I remember before the game, the Italian players were telling everybody that they were just going to turn us over and that Ireland need not bother turning up.
“I also remember standing in the tunnel and seeing eleven very nervous, bordering on scared one or two, when they realised the pressure was on, playing against an Irish team who actually did know how to play,” he added.
It is heartening to turn first to the possibilities for Ireland in attack. So often we have looked to the commendable qualities of Ireland’s defenders.
Their resolve, their courage, their determination, for sustenance. It goes without saying that the defence built around the redoubtable Steve Staunton and his partner Gary Breen will have to perform to the limit of their capabilities.
The deadly Raul and partner Morientes will test them to the limit with the creative Valeron acting as theirchief supplier from midfield.
Happily Ireland are blessed with one of the best of all goalkeepers, Shay Given, and if there are worries about the Irish defence it is about the indifferent form of left-back Ian Harte. He has not been at his best in any match thus far.
HARTE has been substituted in each of the matches and it is something of a surprise that McCarthy has stood by him.
What this team has shown is that when McCarthy has moved to substitute and change the formation the team has never failed to respond positively.
McCarthy’s loyalty to his players is legendary and there is no reason to doubt that he will start tomorrow’s match with anything but the same first-choice eleven that faced Germany and Saudi Arabia.
But one wonders why he has not responded to the evidence of the first-half performances against both and change the selection.
“We never change the way we play” he is in the habit of saying and yet it was plain that Ireland switched their formation as well as their personnel at half-time in all their matches.
McCarthy’s every decision, his every move, his every change has worked a treat and it is obvious that his players are supportive and committed to the point where nothing he asks of them is impossible.
And Spain will feel the full force of a group as united as any in this competition as a result in Suwon.
Spain are physically formidable at centre-back but Hierro, at 34, and Nadal, at 35, are no longer in the first flush of youth.
They will not be comfortable against Ireland’s deadly duo and, indeed, it may well be that Helguera will be pressed into service as either a third centre-back or a replacement.
Spain like to keep their powerful defenders at home and use right-back Puyol and left-back Juanfran to process many of their attacking moves. Ireland can also turn this to advantage by switching their formation to use Duff on the left-wing and bring in a different partner for Keane.
The players know, from the memories of their youth and the extraordinary scenes in the streets outside their hotel last night when Korea celebrated, just how intoxicating success can be.
They want it, they want it badly, and Spain may dis-cover, as Cameroon, Germany and Saudi have done, they will not be denied.