Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Late Keane goal Keeps Ireland on track

Robbie Keane kept Ireland's dreams of automatic qualification for the World Cup finals in South Africa alive with a late equaliser to deny ten-man Italy victory.

The Tottenham striker stabbed home an 87th-minute shot in Bari to claim a point that keeps Ireland within touching distance of the Italians at the top of Group Eight.

It also ensured manager Giovanni Trapattoni a share of the spoils against his native country and the man who replaced him as Italian national boss, Marcello Lippi.

The reigning World champions took an 11th-minute lead through Vincenzo Iaquinta despite having had striker Giampaolo Pazzini sent off with only three minutes gone in the game.

But the Ireland players showed true Irish grit and got their reward in the end as they retained their foothold in the race to make it to South Africa next summer.

Early drama has become a feature of Ireland's recent games with Poland and Georgia stunning the hosts at home by taking the lead within minutes of kick-off and Ireland reversing the trend with Richard Dunne's opener only 40 seconds into Saturday's 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in Croke Park.

However, with Italian coaches Lippi and Trapattoni having prepared painstakingly for an eagerly-anticipated contest, both had their plans ripped apart before their players had the chance to put their managers game plans to the test.

Kevin Kilbane, whose late own goal had handed the Bulgarians a point on Saturday, collided into Pazzini within a minute and was perhaps lucky to escape a yellow card.

The striker, making his first senior start for his country, was not quite so lucky two minutes later when he caught John O'Shea with a flailing elbow, which drew blood and the red card from German referee Wolfgang Stark's pocket.

Replays suggested the decision had been harsh, a view certainly shared by the home supporters, who had earlier jeered Lippi for his refusal to select Bari-born Antonio Cassano.

But if Trapattoni sensed an opportunity, his hopes were dashed within eight minutes as the world champions demonstrated their class in devastating style.

Andrea Pirlo received the ball from full-back Fabio Grosso and delivered it perfectly back into the defender's path to allow him to drill a cross through the ineffectual Paul McShane and Andy Keogh.

Iaquinta was unmarked in the middle to dispatch the simplest of chances and any perceived advantage for Ireland had been wrenched from their grasp.

Despite their numerical disadvantage, it was the supremely organised Italians who were dominating the game and Trapattoni uncharacteristically opted for a change with only 22 minutes gone.

The Ireland boss has stuck rigidly to his favoured system since deciding that was how best to make use of the players at his disposal.

But in withdrawing Andy Keogh, who had started wide on the right in place of the injured Aiden McGeady, and sending on Hull City striker Caleb Folan, he shuffled his pack to good effect.

Keane dropped into the hole between a three-man midfield and frontmen Folan and Kevin Doyle, and the change gave them a foothold in the game.

Midfielder Keith Andrews scuffed a 31st-minute effort wide when he should have done better and Stephen Hunt forced a fine save from Gianluigi Buffon with a half-volley five minutes before half time.

Few in green either on the pitch or the thousands in the stands would have been too disappointed to see Pirlo replaced by Angelo Palombo for the restart and he was quickly followed by Derry's Darron Gibson and Andrea Dossena as the two managers sought to out-manoeuvre each other.

Hunt, who was soon to be joined on the pitch by his younge rbrother Noel as Doyle made way, had ambitious appeals for a 56th-minute penalty waved away after he went down under Buffon's challenge but Ireland were at least starting to make an real impression on the game.

But it was not until an enthralling final ten minutes or so that the home side wavered and, when they did, 'The Boys In Green' finally took advantage.

Kilbane saw an 84th-minute shot deflected over as the Italians became increasingly at nervous the back and their anxiety was to increase markedly as the clock ran down.

The Italians finally cracked three minutes later when Folan made a nuisance of himself as he pursued Given's long clearance and, when the ball broke from a scramble, it fell to the right man in the right place - Robbie Keane.

Keane needed no second invitation to stab home the 38th goal of his Ireland senior international career and send the many thousands of travelling supporters behind Buffon's goal into raptures.

It might have got even better in the final minute of the game when the stranded keeper could only look on imploringly as Glenn Whelan's shot looped up off one of his defenders and dropped just wide.

In The end, a solid point for Ireland that keeps them well in the hunt for a World Cup Final spot in South Africa next year.


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