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Football: BREAKING NEW GROUND IS A STRUGGLE FOR STAN'S MEN; Croker still waiting to witness the beautiful game.

Byline: By GARRY DOYLE

Rep. Ireland 1

Wales 0

THOSE GAA dinosaurs living in fear of the day when soccer is finally played in Croke Park can rest a little easier - because it has yet to happen.

There may have been some activity there on Saturday but we certainly didn't see the beautiful game, instead a rather ugly one.

Interrupted by isolated moments of sublime skill, and one wonderful goal, Saturday proved to be the biggest disappointment Irishmen have suffered since RTE introduced Fair City to our screens.

Yet results matter more than performances in international football and if there was one positive to take away from Jones's Road on Saturday, it was the fact that Ireland's qualification hopes are still alive.

With an added bonus being provided later that evening by Germany's victory in Prague, Ireland are now in a position to heap further pressure on the Czechs if they go on to beat Slovakia on Wednesday.

But they have to improve. For if Saturday proved anything, it was that old cliches die hard, and teams from this part of the world struggle to retain possession.

"In the first half, especially, we were poor," said John Toshack, the Welsh manager. "All we seemed to do was get the ball and give it back to them."

Being the generous hosts, Ireland, in turn, did the same thing. Neutrals must have been depressed by the sad absence of technique and ideas.

Yet they would have been impressed by the quality of the Irish goal - scored by Stephen Ireland, the precocious 20-year-old midfielder from Cobh, who notched up his third international strike in just four appearances.

Taking possession from his captain, Robbie Keane, Ireland used four touches to advance on the Welsh goal, take the ball around the goalkeeper Danny Coyne, and then score from an acute angle.

There and then it seemed as if the Welsh would be in for another drubbing. But it never happened.

Strangled by fear, Ireland withdrew into their shells in the second half, inviting pressure from the Welsh.

And the fact the home side never passed the ball cleanly or accurately, nor engaged their full-backs in any sustained forward movement, meant the bulk of the second half was played in their territory.

To their credit, though, they defended well as a team, save for one glaring mistake in the first half by Richard Dunne, who gifted possession to Craig Bellamy and then watched him run around Paul McShane before being halted by Shay Given.

Had the Liverpool striker scored, then who knows how the pattern of this game would have unfolded?

We'll never know because five minutes after this pivotal moment in the game came the second, decisive incident.

This one was tactical and came from the Irish sideline, where Steve Staunton admitted an error in his game-plan and swapped Damien Duff, who was fruitless in attack, with Stephen Ireland, who was uncomfortable on the right.

Within two minutes, the benefits were clearly evident - as Duff broke from wide to get on the end of a superb pass by Keane to test Coyne.

Wales survived. But not for long because Keane, having cleverly moved into a deep-lying attacking position to receive John O'Shea's pass, diverted the ball into Ireland's path with one deft touch.

With two touches, the Welsh had been cut open. And following four more touches from the young Cork man, Ireland had the lead.

And they never looked like surrendering it. While the standard of their play deteriorated - quite a statement given how poor it already was - Wales enjoyed a fruitful spell in the second half.

So how come? "Well, I didn't think we passed the ball well enough after the break," said Staunton. "We invited pressure onto us."

"Plus," said Toshack, "there were some harsh words said in our dressing room at half-time.

"We told the players to pick it up, to give a little more of themselves, to show more ambition. They did that."

Yet it wasn't enough. While they won more possession, Wales simply lacked the penetrative threat required to regain parity.

And they could even have been further behind had Kevin Doyle's mishit 80th minute shot found the inside of Coyne's post rather than the centre of it.

Ultimately, one was enough - but it was a far from perfect display. The initial flawed system which had Duff, Ireland and Steve Finnan playing out of position, didn't work.

But once surgery was applied, once Duff went wide and once Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt came on, Ireland looked much more balanced.

Yet the question remains. Can Ireland bring the best of Saturday into Wednesday? They have to.

CAPTION(S):

SHOULDERING THE BURDEN: Ryan Giggs and Steve Finnan fight for possesion at Croke Park; KEEPING HIS COOL: Stephen Ireland rounds Danny Coyne on his way to scoring the only goal of Saturday's game
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 26, 2007
Words:812
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