29.03.2005 at 19:30 Lansdowne Road
Republic of Ireland
1 - 0
Referee: D Casha (Malta)
Rep of Ireland 1 China 0
Wednesday March 29th
Thank heavens for Clinton Morrison.The striker who can’t seem to help scoring for Ireland came off the bench to illuminate a dull March friendly with a sweet finish in the 85th minute, before a crowd of just over 35,000 at Lansdowne Road.
It was just enough to give Brian Kerr’s team a 1-0 win over China and go some small way towards banishing the hangover from Tel Aviv - although the pain could resurface tonight should France finally come good in Israel.
Ireland’s starting eleven showed six changes from the side which drew 1-1 with Israel, four of which had already been posted earlier in the week by Brian Kerr, who had called Andy Reid, Richard Dunne, Graham Kavanagh and Paddy Kenny into the team. The additional changes before kick-off saw Leicester’s Alan Maybury replace Stephen Carr at right-back and Sunderland’s Stephen Elliott take over from Morrison upfront.
Elliott, Ireland’s record scorer at U-21 level, had made only one senior appearance before last night, but in that friendly game against Croatia last October, his role as the wide man on the right of a front three gave the 21-year-old little opportunity to show the goalscoring prowess which has helped propel Sunderland to within reach of the Premiership.
Irish captain Kenny Cunningham recently described the young striker as “a fox in the box” and he showed a bit of his cunning after 14 minutes.
Andy Reid’s lob forward saw Robbie Keane challenge for the ball and when it fell kindly for Elliott in the box, he cut sharply inside before his goal-bound shot was blocked by the Chinese captain Li. Four minutes later, a Maybury cross found Kilbane but the midfielder’s firm header went straight at the goalkeeper.
That, frankly, was about the size of the excitement in the opening exchanges of a game which saw a new phenomenon, that of the Chinese giveaway, as the visitors repeatedly and cheaply surrendered possession.
Not that the Irish were blame-free either, as John O’Shea, not for the first time, sent a number of balls forward with more hope than precision.
But with Kilbane and Kavanagh showing a bit of bite in midfield, and Reid and Duff supplying the flair on the flanks, there were periods of sustained Irish pressure which ought to have produced a more conclusive finish.
As it was, China came closest to breaking the deadlock when, on 34 minutes, in something of a repeat of the build-up to Israel’s goal in Tel Aviv, a ball from the left was laid off by Shao, for Zhano to test Paddy Kenny with a low drive. The keeper got down to parry the shot but as Shao followed up the rebound, Kenny was able to save again, this time at the expense of a corner.
Both sides made two changes at the break, with Duff, who’d earlier taken a heavy challenge from Shao, being replaced by Liam Miller while Andy O’Brien came in for Kenny Cunningham.
Four minutes after the restart, a good Irish build-up saw Miller shoot from inside the edge of the box, but his effort lacked the power to trouble Li.
Again, most of the pressure continued to be exerted by the home side, but it was a long Chinese ball from the back which almost produced the breakthrough. The flying Sun beat Maybury for pace, collected the pass and bore down menacingly on goal but his shot, hit with the outside of his left foot, flew just wide of the post.
The biggest cheer of a so far largely uneventful game was reserved for the arrival of Roy Keane as a replacement for Kevin Kilbane in the 65th minutes.
Keane tried manfully to lift the home side, too manfully for Zhang, who was stretchered off after finding himself in the way of a typical surge by the Corkman.
More substitutions, which saw Morrison and Gary Doherty replace Robbie Keane and Stephen Elliott, suggested Ireland would try a more direct route in search of a goal.
Sure enough, in the 83rd minute, Maybury’s long ball up the flank was too tempting for Li. As he raced out to the corner of his area, Morrison got there first and nimbly lifted it over the keeper and into the back of the net. It was the striker’s ninth goal for Ireland, and his fourth in the last six, statistics which mean that Stephen Elliott will have his work cut out to displace the Birmingham striker in Brian Kerr’s affections.
Boosted by the goal, Ireland might then have had a second when Graham Kavanagh, living up to his man of the match billing, danced into the box only to see his powerful drive turned over the top by Li.
With the dying moments of the game finally seeing a flurry of action, China won a free in a threatening position just outside the box.
Substitute Wang lashed in a diagonal drive but, as bodies piled in, Paddy Kenny held firm to ensure there was no repeat of that last-minute sucker punch in Tel Aviv.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Kenny, Maybury, Cunningham (45 O’Brien), Dunne, O’Shea, Kavanagh, Reid, Kilbane (65 Roy Keane), Duff (45 Miller), Robbie Keane (61 Morrison), Elliott (73 Doherty).
CHINA: Li, Wei, Ji, Zhang (80 Zhang), Li, Sun, Chen (35 Li), Zhano, Hu, Shao (62 Du), Li.
As for last night’s assignment, well that was never likely to set the pulses racing and so it proved. China hit town on the back of a 3-0 spanking in Spain and, when nine of their eleven starters took the field with sleeves tucked down over their knuckles, you wondered just how stiff a breeze it would take to knock them down.
As it transpired, they actually manufactured the evening’s two best chances before Morrison’s late contribution and impudent celebration, Zhano Junzhe and Sun Xiang coming close either side of the break against an Irish side that rarely raised itself above the ordinary.
“China did okay, defended well and had one opportunity,” said Kerr. “They worked very hard, had a good centre-back. They were good in the air and dangerous on the break once or twice but I’m more interested in how we played.”
Judged alongside the heavily criticised performance in Israel, the Easter report card doesn’t make the prettiest of reading, but the real interest for Ireland last night was always in the individuals rather than the collective.
Stephen Elliott and Andy Reid had more eyes on them than most, with the Sunderland striker playing the deeper role up front alongside Robbie Keane and the midfielder looking to further his claims on the wing.
“Stephen’s a young player in his first season of football as a first-team player. He’s scored a few goals and he played against Croatia last year but out wide and not in his main role, so it was important to see him play in the centre. It was awkward to tread the ball through with it bobbling all over the place. Down at ground level the pitch looked abysmal.”
There were other crumbs of comfort on an otherwise forgettable night in Ballsbridge. Paddy Kenny tucked a badly needed 90 minutes of international football under his shirt, giving a solid display in the process.
Richard Dunne, likewise, got his opportunity to repeat his recent impressive club displays at the back, although Alan Maybury’s night at right-back was more a mixed bag.
“We made six changes to the line-up and got more on that didn’t play on Saturday. It was important for Paddy Kenny to get a game.
“He played well without ever being under pressure. Alan Maybury got a run, Gary Doherty got on, Andy Reid got a full game and lads can feel that they’re in with a chance of playing. That’s important.”
The biggest plus for Kerr after this mid-season get-together has undoubtedly been the goals from Clinton Morrison, whose eye for goal with Ireland seems to get sharper - if not his match fitness - the longer Steve Bruce keeps him benched at Birmingham.
“It was a very good finish for the goal,” said Kerr. “We didn’t play too many balls in behind them. They were difficult to break down. It was a decent ball by Alan, a good run and a good finish.
“It took a while to come down and go in, but it was a good finish.
“I’d like him to play more often, I said on Saturday that he wasn’t as sharp as I would like. He was in the best of form I’d seen him in up until the transfer window in January.”