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Irish move level with Russia, Slovakia after lackluster win

By Kieran Rooney

[caption id="attachment_63782" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Shane Long of Ireland holds off Macedonia's Vance Sikov. INPHO/DONALL FARMER"]

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UNSURPRISINGLY, there has been a very mixed reaction to the Republic of Ireland's 2-1 European Championship Group B success over Macedonia at the Avia Stadium on Saturday night.

The victory means that Ireland have moved level on the 10 point mark with Slovakia and Russia at the top of the group. That is, by any standards, good news.

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What once again upset some of the pundits, however, was the style of play. And there was also the fact that the Irish side yet again made life very difficult for themselves after taking an early 2-0 lead.

Had it not been for the ineptitude of the visiting goalkeeper Edin Nuredinovski the situation could have been worse. He should have done much better in his attempt to stop Aidan McGeady's opening goal and was hopelessy at fault for Ireland's second, scored by Robbie Keane after a fumbled Darron Gibson free kick.

At that stage, Giovanni Trapattoni's team looked sure to go on to a comfortable victory. But the loss of Kevin Doyle with a medial ligaments problem was to have a crucial bearing on their performance.

Without Doyle's ability to hold the ball up and his strength in the air, the Irish side gradually lost direction. His replacement Shane Long is a very different type of player. He's smaller and someone who depends much more on his pace.

The problem was that, with two small men, Long and Keane up front, Ireland had no chance to compete for the ball in the air. Neither did they have the necessary guile to hold on to possession.

So, they gradually conceded more possession, leaving Macedonia to grow in confidence. Just before half-time, that possession enabled them to get right back into the game when Ivan Trickovski reduced the deficit to 2-1 with a well worked goal.

The score changed the game completely. Macedonia grew in confidence and could easily have secured a second half equalizer had it not been for the good work of Westwood in the Irish goal.

But Ireland survived leaving Trapattoni reasonably happy. The bottom line for him, as always, is the result, he genuinely doesn't seem to understand what all the fuss is about concerning the style of play.

To be fair to Trapattoni, the Irish team didn't have the best lead up for the match. Key players such as Shay Given and John O'Shea were unavailable, while others like Richard Dunne were short on match practice.

In the event, Westwood did a decent job in Given's absence, while both Kevin Foley and Darren O'Dea also coped reasonably well in the Irish defense, but Dunne was badly exposed for Macedonia's goal. In many ways, the injury to Doyle was probably the biggest blow.

It was a pity because Aidan McGeady looked very threatening after getting his much overdue first international goal. Although he can be frustrating at times, he has real ability to go by defenders and undoubtedly has improved since his move to Spartak Moscow.

Damien Duff also did some good things on the other flank, while it was important that Keane scored after an indifferent period in front of goal. Unfortunately, Darron Gibson failed really convince in midfield, alongside Glen Whelan who struggled badly to make an impact.

The reality, of course, is that Ireland need good young players to emerge. Everton's Seamus Coleman and Wigan's James McCarthy are two who have the obvious potential.

McCarthy, having stuck to his guns in preferring to play for Ireland rather than Scotland, was on the subs bench on Saturday. Importantly he was brought on for Keane with three minutes remaining (his first competitive outing, tying him to Ireland in future), and even in his short time on the pitch, showed some good touches.

But the main concern for Trapattoni just now is the injury to Doyle. Worryingly, for Wolves boss Mick McCarthy, he is set to miss at least a month, but hopefully he will recover in time for the next Euro Championship game, away to Macedonia in Skopje on June 4.

Hopefully, John O'Shea will be back for that game, which is crucial because Dunne has been ruled out of the Skopje encounter after picking up his second yellow card of the campaign on Saturday.

Trapattoni remains confident that the Irish side can compete a double over the Macedonians. His big worry seems to be that many of his players will be exhausted in the heat of Macedonia after their efforts for their clubs.

"The players run the risk of being empty after so many games." argued the Irish manager. "It's not just Damien Duff who has played so many games for Fulham. May God look after him."

God, it seems, continues to look after the Irish side with the victory over Macedonia and Russia's away 0-0 draw with Armenia leaving them level at the top of the group. Let's just hope things continue to go our way.

Provinces on top in Magners

THREE Irish teams head the Magners League after good victories for Munster, Leinster and Ulster over the weekend.

The only disappointment was the 25-13 away defeat of Connacht at the hands of bottom placed Aironi. That apart, however, things went well.

Munster are 12 points clear at the top following a hard earned 16-15 away succes over Cardiff. James Coughlan scored the only try, with the remainder of the points coming from the boot of Ronan O'Gara.

They are certain of a place in the semi-finals but there's quite a battle going on for the other spots. Leinster, Ulster and the Ospreys are on the 55 point mark, while Cardiff are five points behind with a game in hand.

Leinster had to fight hard to get the better of the Dragons 26-16 at Rodney Parade. Fortunately, Jonathan Sexton was in excellent form with the boot, contributing 16 points.

Yet again, the accurate boot of South African half-back Ruan Piennar proved the difference for Ulster as they beat Glasgow 22-19 at Firhill. He contributed all of Ulster's total, with a try, conversion, and five penalties, the winning penalty coming from near halfway in injury time.

Ireland move to 4th in World

IRELAND have moved into fourth spot in the International Rugby Board's rankings, in spite of finishing third in the Six Nations.

Declan Kidney's men have moved fractionally ahead of England and France to be the top European side. New Zealand are on top, with Australia second, South Africa third, Ireland fourth, England fifth, France sixth and Wales seventh.

Rovers lose 100 pc record

SHAMROCK ROVERS still lead the way, three points clear at the top of the League of Ireland Premier Division.

But they failed to win for the first time, only managing a scoreless away draw with Derry City. Although Bohemians went down to a surprise 1-0 home defeat to Galway United, they hold on to second spot on point difference from Sligo Rovers and Bray Wanderers.

Sligo beat Drogheda United 2-0 at home, while surprise packets Bray got the better of UCD 1-0 at Belfield.