11.06.2003 at 00:00 Lansdowne Road
Republic of Ireland
2 - 0
Referee: EI Gonzalez (Spain).
European Cup Qualifier-match
Rep of Ireland 2 Georgia 0
Ireland overcame the loss of the gifted Damien Duff in exciting style before 36,000 spectators at Lansdowne Road last night to emphatically see off the challenge of Georgia and bring qualification for the European finals in Portugal sharply into focus.
Ireland were comfortable winners of the Group 10 qualifier that saw them return to their best form with a mature, well-balanced performance that was too powerful for Georgia.
And on a night when many of Ireland’s players made memorable individual contributions, Colin Healy emerged from the shadows at Parkhead to establish himself as an international player of genuine talent.
Brian Kerr’s team selection caused a surprise, for who could have forecast the inclusion of the 23-year-old Healy in Ireland’s midfield. It proved an inspirational decision because the young Celtic midfielder was dynamic in a team that played compelling football at pace and with accuracy.
His contribution mocked his lack of status at Celtic where he has had a fallow season, without first-team football, obviously without encouragement, and without the opportunity to make progress.
It is not for me to speculate on the reasons why Martin O’Neill ignored him, but Healy was comfortable and authoritative in the heart of Ireland’s midfield and a positive influence on Ireland’s play.
There was a range and a breadth to his passing that has been missing since the days of Liam Brady. This is not to make a comparison between the two, merely a suggestion that Healy’s ability to mix his range of passing and find paths through Georgia’s massed defence was of enormous assistance to Ireland’s front-runners.
Healy’s work provided a level of penetration that was lacking in Duff’s absence.
And for 25 minutes there was a drive and a focus to Ireland’s football that should have yielded dividends.
O’Shea was narrowly wide with a header, Khizanishvili almost turned one into his own net under pressure from Doherty and Kilbane wasted the best opportunity, scooping a half-volley over from seven yards.
There were elements of Ireland’s play that were less than satisfactory even as they dictated the trend and the tempo of the game. Gary Doherty found it difficult to get near the ball against Georgia’s powerful central defensive trio.
They were strong and resourceful with Kaladze showing all the style of a Champions’ League winner with AC Milan but Doherty is made of stern stuff and would not be discouraged.
His partner, Robbie Keane, probably played more ball than anybody else on the pitch in a typical all-action performance. But too often he dribbled until he lost possession and he spent too much time in midfield. Yet his special qualities were of precious value to Ireland and his capacity for work was formidable.
Ireland deserved a more generous return, but there was never any suggestion that a group of players who once again maintained a remarkable level of commitment would be discouraged by the absence of a breakthrough. For all their possession, Ireland seldom forced goalkeeper Lomaia into action, but their persistence was intimidating for Georgia.
A goal after 43 minutes was deserved reward and just the encouragement they needed to maintain the pressure on Georgia. It came in unlikely circumstances as Doherty found space in the box to flick a header past Lomaia from Kilbane’s accurate and speedy free-kick.
That the referee had occasion to reprimand Kaladaze minutes earlier for restraining Doherty was perhaps an influence.
Where Doherty had been forced to wrestle Georgia’s powerful defenders as he sought a degree of freedom in a crowded penalty area, he must have been pleasantly surprised to be able to deflect an unimpeded header.
A second goal 13 minutes into the second half effectively settled the issue. Georgia were unable to break free and when Lee Carsley flicked a ball over his head to find Keane surging into the box, Georgia’s defensive line was breached. Keane was decisive and cool as he set himself up before clipping the ball past Lomaia.
Georgia enjoyed more success in the closing 20 minutes but the emphasis for Ireland at that stage was on ensuring they did not concede.
It was noticeable that Keane was less often seen in midfield as Ireland ensured they did not commit too many men forward.
Overall it was a night of triumph of team planning and execution for Kerr and his men.
The return to a more familiar 4-4-2 formation was, obviously, a success, but it was always predictable Ireland would find the drive and energy that had been missing against Albania.
Healy was outstanding and there were others who reaped a bountiful harvest from a match that confirmed the strength and viability of Ireland’s qualification challenge.
Kilbane showed his marvellous versatility on the left flank and had his best performance for Ireland. And right through the team, Ireland had players of substance.
Russia come to Dublin in September and will view Ireland’s developing challenge with some trepidation. Then it will be Switzerland in Berne.
And after this latest triumph, Ireland’s attitude must be ‘bring them all on’.
IRELAND (4-4-2): Given; Carr, Breen, Cunningham, O’Shea; Carsley, Holland, Healy (Kinsella 86), Kilbane; Doherty (Lee 88), Keane.
GEORGIA (3-5-2): Lomaia; Zurab Khizanishvili, Otar Khizaneishvili, Kaladze; Burduli, Didava (Aleksidze 77), Asatiani, Rekhviashvili, Amisulashvili; Demetradze (Daraselia 60), Arveladze.
Referee: EI Gonzalez (Spain).
Brian Kerr hasn’t revealed his summer plans but perhaps he might consider a trip to Las Vegas.
Luck can only bring the gambler so far - the Irish manager has shown that he also brings an astuteness to the table.
Last night’s 2-0 victory leaves Ireland clinging to the Swiss coat-tails, and in the astonishing position of being able to qualify automatically if they win their last two games. Of course, their last two games will prove sterner examinations than Georgia did, but rookie Kerr has shown his capacity to play poker with the big boys. Any dice he tosses at present comes up with the right numbers.
Take Colin Healy, a forgotten man in Glasgow. Rated by Martin O’Neill, but apparently not enough to accommodate Healy in place of either of his aging midfielders.
With only 18 competitive minutes of football since February, and that against Norway in April, Healy offered a real solution to Kerr’s most despairing headache. Not only did he thread two wonderful passes into Robbie Keane, he also freed Matt Holland up. Holland had his best game for Ireland since last summer, holding, robbing and cleaning everything around him.
While Healy might have been the manager’s joker, Gary Doherty is proving the ace in his pack - the Spurs man who wants to be a centre half has already claimed three international goals since Kerr took charge.
“That’s part of the job, to weigh up, to review and make decisions,” Kerr said afterwards. “Colin did his job very well, worked well and so did Gary.”
“We have won three and drawn one from the last four games. It is a decent haul and it puts us back into the running. Switzerland are still in the driving seat. Hard night’s work, 11th of June is late to be breaking up. I am satisfied with tonight’s work, we limited them to chances outside the box and it was very hard work for the players individually and collectively.”
But, as he says, the aim on June 1st was six points from two games. And that is what Ireland got. It is nice to be good as well as lucky.
It was Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given who summed up the overriding feeling of his team-mates last night having collected maximum points from their summer Euro 2004 qualifiers.
Brian Kerr’s side’s assured 2-0 victory over Georgia at Lansdowne Road, hot on the heels of Saturday’s scrambled 2-1 win against Albania, placed Ireland’s fate in reaching next year’s finals in Portugal firmly back in their own hands and Given said: “We couldn’t really ask for anything more; that’s six points from the two games and now it’s game on. We’re all delighted.
“It was a great atmosphere and I think the night games help us as well. When it gets dark, it always adds to the atmosphere.”
Given’s also praised opening goalscorer Gary Doherty’s knack of being in the right place at the right time. “It’s brilliant,” the keeper said. “It was a great cross from Kevin Kilbane. We’d worked on set-pieces this morning as well, and it paid off just before half-time which was a great time to get it.
“I thought there were a few good players out there. I thought Robbie (Keane) played exceptionally well and took his goal well and there were good performances out there from a lot of people and man of the match could have gone to anyone.”
Keane himself was quick to praise his strike partner for the night, Doherty, who broke the deadlock with a back-post header after a frustrating first half for the front men.
“Gary did brilliantly. He won every header and caused them a lot of problems and deserved the goal. We always knew that if we kept going we’d get chances. But when the free-kick came and Gary scored with a great header, it was a big relief.
“We’ve worked hard over these last few weeks and it was capped off today. I don’t think they had many clear chances, just a few shots form outside the 18-yard box. So it’s two great results from the last two games.
“It’s in our own hands now. We know the games that are left (at home to Russia and away to Switzerland) are going to be tough, but these games will give us a lot of confidence.”
Keane said he thought last night’s performance had been the best Ireland had produced in the six unbeaten games since Brian Kerr had succeeded Mick McCarthy as manager: “We passed the ball well and kept the ball going. And as a team I don’t think you can fault one player for playing badly.”
Keane did no harm to his personal target of overtaking Niall Quinn as the Republic’s highest scorer. Thanks to his well-taken second-half goal, the Tottenham striker now has 16 goals from his 43 appearances in the green, just five behind his former strike partner, and still a month short of his 23rd birthday: “I really don’t think about the record as much as other people do, but every time I see Quinny he keeps asking me if there’s any chance of me catching him up. I don’t think he means it though. Of course it would be nice to do it but the most important thing is the team scoring goals and winning games.”
Midfielder Matt Holland praised the step up in standards from last Saturday’s more laborious victory over the Albanians: “It was a much better performance tonight. We know we didn’t play that well against Albania, even though we got the three points from that game. But we played a lot better this time round and came away with another three points.”
Holland, whose attentions turn to the offer of joining newly-promoted Premiership side Portsmouth from Ipswich Town, praised the work-rate of central midfielder Colin Healy, who was selected in preference to regular partner Mark Kinsella: “Colin did very well. He had great energy and he got about the place. He had licence to get forward and he did that to good effect. I thought he had a very good game.”Brian Kerr also lauded the ‘fringe’ players. “Colin has played well in a few teams I have had in the past and he played well when he was selected by Mick McCarthy.
“He is a high energy player, he is a good player, he can tackle and he gave us some physique because they were a big, physical team. It meant we had another strong person at set pieces which needed to be defended and I felt he did a good job.
“Six points was the target this week and we got them. You don’t always get what you want and what you deserve, but we deserved three points tonight, that’s for sure.”