2002 World Cup: Ireland 1 Cameroon 1
AT 4.40pm local time yesterday, for the first time since they left Ireland more than two weeks ago, something went right for the Irish team.
Matt Holland's fourth goal for his country banished the doubt that has been Ireland's constant companion for most of the past fortnight. The goal changed everything.
For the players who worked so hard in the Big Swan stadium in Niigata, it was vindication that Ireland are not a one-man team; for Mick McCarthy, possibly more even than the victory against Holland at Lansdowne Road in which Roy Keane was the most significant character, this may be his outstanding achievement as an international manager.
The game had been going against Ireland during a disappointing first half. The second started better and when Holland, with great purpose, gathered Raymond Kalla's weak clearance, he drove the ball beautifully low into the bottom right corner. The day was so good because for so long it looked like being terrible.
Ireland were all over the place in the first half and the doubts that exist about the centre of defence were not dispelled by this performance. Steve Staunton is due to earn his 100th cap against Germany, but if Ireland's participation in the World Cup is going to be more than a benefit for loyal players, then McCarthy should consider leaving him out. It would be no more peculiar than some of McCarthy's selection decisions yesterday.
Gary Kelly had an impressive week in training, but leaving Steve Finnan out, the best right-back in the Premiership last year, when the alternative was to move Kelly to left-back (where he ended up), and move Ian Harte further forward seemed reckless. This would have involved dropping Kilbane.
Although he improved greatly in the second half, the Sunderland winger froze yesterday. He started badly when his first touch of the ball in the World Cup finals bounced off his foot and hit his hand. It was harsh, but the Japanese referee awarded a free-kick. Up against Geremi of Real Madrid, his limitations were revealed on the world stage.
Cameroon's best attacks — including their goal — all came from the right. After the week Ireland had, it was understandable that Mick McCarthy did not want an explosive start, so Ireland sat back and played comfortably. A scoreless draw appeared to be the preferred option.
When he watched Cameroon draw with England, McCarthy pointed out that there was not a tackle made by England. Like Roy Keane against the Dutch, Holland attempted to set the tone, with a tough but fair tackle on Marc-Vivien Foe in the sixth minute.
It wasn't as effective. The absence of Keane played its part in diminishing Ireland's self-belief, but the performance of Cameroon in the opening 45 minutes confirmed the belief in some quarters that Ireland were set for a short World Cup.
The African champions were being helped by Ireland's inability to keep the ball, always a major worry without Keane. Geremi had put in across in the tenth minute that signalled Ireland's problems at the back. Given, under pressure from Lauren, got a weak connection and Patrick Mboma headed back. Staunton, when he had time, conceded a corner.
Ireland's strengths were further forward, but it was the second half before Keane and Duff were given the opportunity to test the Cameroon defence on the ground. In the first half, they were outmuscled by the defence with Kalla, a giant, obviously going to dominate Damien Duff in the air.
Despite that, there were signs of quick thinking from Ireland. Keane tried a shot from 25 vards that bounced up off Alioum. The Leeds forward should have scored four minutes later when Jason McAteer took a quick corner to Harte and his cross was headed wide.
Before that the problems in the Irish defence were highlighted. Samuel Eto'o played a one-two with Mboma leaving Gary Breen and Staunton for dead. Eto'o was through but Given came out to smother the forward's attempted chip.
Ireland were struggling, but Cameroon were also full of confidence. Geremi, who was torturing Kilbane and Harte, put Eto'o in but the Mallorca striker chipped wide.
The passing of the Africans was hullmiliating Ireland's back four at times. But the game, strangely lacking atmosphere, did not appear to be out of Ireland's grasp, even though there were few attacking threats.
There were signs.
Mboma back-heeled the ball down the right to Geremi and the cross was headed away well by Staunton. A couple of minutes later, Ireland's poor defending was truly expensive. Geremi, again, found Eto'o and he embarrassed Staunton, playing the ball through his legs before slipping the ball to Mboma.
Breen had come across to cover and there was one touch from the big man before he finished with his left. It was not something Ireland needed — confirmation that they couldn't hack it without their greatest player, but then everything changed.
Before half-time, Song had re-directed a Harte free-kick towards his own goal, but Alioum scooped the ball up on the line. In the second half, Ireland played with the freedom that the prospect of defeat sometimes brings. They resumed with greater purpose even if they would have been in big trouble if Geremi had scored after Harte was foolishly caught in possession in the 51st minute.
Ireland were already looking better, though. Finnan had replaced McAteer, who took a knock on his other leg, and Ireland took a grip on the game. Holland was immense while Duff worked all day and showed glimpses of his great talent. He will show it all before Ireland go home.
But it was Holland who showed the spirit. The equaliser, naturally, lifted everybody. Duff then went on his first great run and Cameroon began to look unsteady at the back.
Alioum dropped a Harte corner and then the 'keeper had to scramble the ball off the line when Gary Breen knocked a header across goal. Robbie Keane claimed that the ball came off Song's hand.
There were still hairy moments at the back. Staunton and Breen were taken out of it with a Mboma knock-on but good covering from Finnan ensured that Eto'o shot wide.
Ireland were now turning the screw. Harte went off with cramp and his replacement Steven Reid showed his potential — as well as being shown a yellow card. Robbie Keane knows all about potential, but these days he plays support to Duff.
With nine minutes remaining, he nearly became a star again.
After a Duff run and cross was cleared, Keane took a swing at it from 30 yards and Alioum could only watch as the ball bounced off the post.
Reid hit one from further forward that Alioum was relieved didn't move. Ireland went for victory but the point they wanted at the beginning was more than enough.
All has changed. At least until Wednesday.
Republic of Ireland: Shay Given, Gary Kelly, Gary Breen, Steve Staunton (captain), Ian Harte (Steven Reid 78), Jason McAteer (Steve Finnan 45), Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, Mark Kinsella, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane.
Subs Not Used: Lee Carsley, David Connolly, Kenny Cunningham, Richard Dunne, Alan Kelly, Dean Kiely, Clinton Morrison, Andy O'Brien, Niall Quinn.
Booked: Jason McAteer, Steve Finnan, Steven Reid.
Goal: Matt Holland '52.
Cameroon: Alioum, Kalla, Wome, Song, Lauren, Geremi, Eto'o, Foe, Olembe, Tchato, Mboma (Suffo 69).
Subs Not Used: Alnoudji, Djemba-Djemba, Epalle, Job, Kameni, Kome, Mettomo, N'Diefi, Ndo, Njanka, Songo'o. Booked: Kalla. Goal
Goal: Mboma 39.
Referee: T Kamikawa (Japan.)
Match Attendance: 33,679