Dominance throughout without the Irish ever really excelling
|Rep of Ireland
On Friday May 26 Liverpool and Arsenal had met on the very last day of an extended English football season, obviously caused by the horrific tragedy which took place at Hillsborough in Sheffield on April 15. Liverpool had, despite the terrible circumstances, reached and won the FA Cup final (against city rivals Everton), but would eventually have to see Arsenal sensationally win 2-0 at Anfield courtesy of a late, late goal by the Londoners’ midfielder Michael Thomas to win the visitors the title. No less than four of the players in that Liverpool team, young full-back Staunton, midfielders Houghton and Whelan, as well as striker Aldridge, had been selected by Jackie Charlton for this qualifying tie against Malta. From Arsenal there was also a very proud, and jaded after all the celebrations, O’Leary, the veteran centre half, who had won his first league title following 14 years at the club. The big question was: would the game that took place less than 48 hours earlier have an effect on the Irish team for this game?
Ireland, fresh from their victory over group run away leaders Spain just over a month earlier, could earn their second successive win and go second in the table above Northern Ireland and still undefeated Hungary. It was an afternoon match in front of a packed Lansdowne Road stadium, where the Irish were looking to win their ninth successive fixture. The last time they had failed to win was when Belgium had held them to a 0-0 draw in the qualifiers ahead of Euro 1988 back in April ’87. Ireland’s last home defeat had come in March ’86, when Wales had won 1-0 in a friendly. Mick McCarthy was missing with a knee injury from the team that had upset the odds and beaten the Spanish. Apart from him, they were all there. This includes Frank Stapleton, who had done a good match against Spain. The returning John Aldridge had therefore to be content with a place on the bench, as did Liam Brady. The omens were also good, considering that the Irish had recorded their largest ever qualifying win against the Maltese: In November 1983, an annus horribilis for Malta who would also lose 12-1 in Spain a month later, the Irish put eight without reply past the hapless John Bonello, David Cluett’s predecessor, in their Euro ’84 qualification tie at Dalymount Park in Dublin. Their carnival-clad supporters in the Lansdowne Road stands and terraces would surely be hoping for something similair on this occasion.
Malta, who had come crashing back to earth in their last outing against Northern Ireland in Valletta, were expected to front defensive tactics yet again to try and win them a point. They would surely not try and win any new friends. Left back Alex Azzopardi was back in the side after having served his suspension against the Northern Irish, and other than that Horst Heese would draft in defender/midfielder Silvio Vella to replace forward David Carabott in the starting eleven. They clearly had a lot of respect for the Irish following the home side’s recent win against Spain. Charlie Scerri would be hoping for a birthday gift, as he would turn 25 the following day.
Wind seems to have been a feature of Group 6 so far, and yet again there was a solid breeze which would play in favour of the Republic of Ireland during the first half. Referee was experienced Portuguese dos Santos, whose last international fixture had been during last summer’s European Championships, when he had refereed the game between England and the Soviet Union in Ireland’s group.
Republic of Ireland (4-4-2)
|1 Packie Bonner
|2 Chris Hughton
|3 Steve Staunton
|4 David O’Leary
|5 Kevin Moran (c)
|6 Ronnie Whelan
|7 Paul McGrath
|8 Ray Houghton
|9 Frank Stapleton
|10 Tony Cascarino
|11 Kevin Sheedy
|12 Liam Brady
|13 Andy Townsend
|14 John Aldridge
|15 Niall Quinn
|16 Gerry Peyton
|1 David Cluett
|2 Edwin Camilleri
|3 Alex Azzopardi
|4 Joe Galea
|5 Silvio Vella
|6 John Buttigieg
|7 Carmel Busuttil
|8 Ray Vella (c)
|9 Charles Scerri
|10 Michael Degiorgio
|11 Martin Gregory
|12 Reginald Cini
|13 David Carabott
|14 Denis Cauchi
|15 Jesmond Delia
|16 Hubert Suda
This is Charlton’s 4-4-2, as classic as you get it, with long balls from the back to the front, some ‘machine-like’ midfielders who will run their opponents into the ground, and two strikers who will cause a lot of problems with their aerial presence. Charlton’s tactics is particularly effective as he has two different kind of wide midfielders, with one who likes running wide and putting crosses in, whereas the other is more inverted and makes a lot of skilful runs off as well as on the ball.
Malta? It is an odd formation and an amusing tactical ploy not to use an outright right-back. Galea and S Vella perform man-marking duties in central defence, with Buttigieg sweeping as always. Azzopardi is the recognized left-back, with E Camilleri in a defensive midfield role to assist him, due to the difficulty for one man alone to handle a player the calibre of Ray Houghton. There’s even Degiorgio aiding these two when needed. Not setting out with a right-sided defender may seem strange when there’s a winger as typical as Kevin Sheedy in the Irish line-up. Both R Vella and Gregory do their utmost to keep Sheedy quiet, but it is probably the Irish themselves who best contribute to this, as they do not feed Sheedy a lot of balls down the left hand channel. Perhaps they are confused by the large pockets of space which are seemingly ahead of him?
Malta kicked off through Gregory and Busuttil, the latter who had recorded 16 goals in 40 internationals, not a bad tally at all for a Maltese striker. Again, they would be facing the wind in the first half, a half which the Irish, as you would’ve expected, were to dominate completely. High on belief after that impressive win against Spain, the Irish felt they were invincible. Yet, they were never complacent. They went about their way in that simple but efficient manner: punting it long for the target man from all across the back four. Tony Cascarino, the Millwall forward, was the one they kept aiming for in this particular game, and Malta were never really anywhere near him in the aerial challenges. While Ireland were trying to play a high pace game, the visitors seized on every opportunity to slow the match down. They would play it back to their goalkeeper Cluett on so many occasions during the first half, which unsurprisingly upset the crowd. Malta never looked like having serious intentions to win the game, albeit they were just being realistic.
Jackie Charlton lined up in his traditional 4-4-2, where Hughton on the right was a lot less attack-minded than young Staunton on the left. The latter seemed to play with bundles of energy, despite having played and lost in that title decider in the English top flight only two days previous. At centre half, O’Leary played right, Moran, currently plying his trade in the Spanish league, left. Right in front of them was McGrath, but it did appear that Charlton told him to be less of an anchor, more of a central midfielder, as the half wore on. There really was not much need for a defensive midfielder against a Malta more than happy to sit back. Even Whelan and Houghton seemed quite energetic in the opening half, perhaps more so than Sheedy out left, who didn’t see an awful lot of the ball. Houghton on the opposite flank appeared to be a great inspiration whenever the ball was being kept on the deck, which honestly wasn’t too often, as Cascarino was there to aim at. Off the Millwall striker worked Stapleton, who had been deprived of the winning goal against Spain, and so denied of equaling Don Givens’ international record tally of 19 goals for Eire. Stapleton, now in the twilight of his career, did not do an awful lot of running, but he was in posession of a very clever head. His positioning was second to none, yet it was his partner up front who imposed the greatest threat to the Maltese goal.
What about Malta? The right back position had been a bit of a headache for Heese in their previous outings. As a result, he lined up in Dublin without a recognized right back! These tactics were slightly confusing, as Azzopardi on the left was featuring in his regular left back role. However, both Gregory and captain Ray Vella would be seen covering Malta’s defensive right hand side, more or less in shifts. Scerri lined up on this side of the pitch, but he carried a lot more of an attacking responsibility, and was often seen as Malta’s most forward player, with Busuttil from time to time coming deep to collect the ball. Hence, Scerri could not be trusted with defending duties. Another seemingly odd decision from the West German coach was the fact that he had handed midfielder Silvio Vella the responsibility of marking big Cascarino. Edwin Camilleri had been playing as a man marker in almost every match so far, and had done reasonably well in this capacity. However, Heese deployed the younger Vella to battle it out with Cascarino, a strange decision as Camilleri is also taller than him, and you would have thought he would be better equipped to perhaps challenge the big Irish forward in the air. As it were, Edwin Camilleri was playing in a defensive midfield role, slightly towards the left of the pitch, possibly to help Azzopardi in keeping an eye on the lively Houghton, whom Heese surely had identified as an Irish source of creativity. Going forward, though, Camilleri was useless. He is about as typical a centre half as it gets. The decision to play Silvio Vella at the back and him in midfield really was baffling.
Most of what the Irish cause of problems to their visitors during the first half, Cascarino is at the heart of. He will win every long ball, head it back into the path of his midfielders, and both Whelan and Houghton will benefit from his knock-downs. Their shooting is slightly wayward, though, and does rarely trouble Cluett. From set-pieces comes another challenge to the Maltese, who are clearly uncomfortable. Both Sheedy’s inswinging crosses or Houghton’s outswung ones cause Malta problems, but it is a long punt up field from centre half Moran which will finally open them up: Cascarino again wins the header against S Vella, and Houghton scores with a low drive into Cluett’s deep right hand corner. The goal carries every hallmark of Jack Charlton’s footballing philosophy. Houghton takes a knock from Buttigieg as he fires home, and it takes the livewire midfielder a few seconds to pick himself off the ground. His team mates are jubilant around him.
The first half sees two yellow cards for Malta: goalkeeper Cluett shields the ball out for a goalkick and is kicked to the ground by Aldridge, who has replaced an injured Stapleton before half an hour was played. The ‘keeper goes to the ground and complains to the referee that the Liverpool striker had kicked him, but dos Santos, who in his everyday life is a bit of a humourist, with business cards printed in yellow and red, does not see anything funny in Cluett’s antics, and the Malta goalie is rewarded with a booking, partly for his complaints, partly for time wasting. This the Maltese were still happy to do at 1-0 down. Just before half time captain Vella would also get himself booked, when protesting heavily that Sheedy had unnecessarily fouled Buttigieg. A free-kick had already been issued in Malta’s favour, but Vella felt he had to clearify to the ref that the Everton winger’s behaviour was unacceptable. Dos Santos kindly donated one of his yellow business cards to the midfielder, who would then be missing their final match of the qualifying campaign, having also been booked in the 2-0 defeat at home to Spain.
With Stapleton’s injury after a challenge from Azzopardi, it meant a fourth Liverpool player on the pitch in substitute Aldridge. And five players in the Irish team from that Anfield debacle less than 48 hours earlier. It went without saying that Ireland were slightly less enthusiastic than on occasions when they had been well rested. Yet, they were still far too good for Malta. The extreme long ball tactics were simply too much for the Mediterraneans to cope with. From the stands there were songs of “Here we go” and “Que sera, sera”, and despite Malta’s time-wasting tactics, the carnival-like atmosphere seemed to lift an imaginary roof off Lansdowne Road. 1-0 at half time was no less than Eire deserved.
The second act continued in much the same fashion until the Irish ran out of steam in the last quarter of an hour. By then they had the game won, albeit probably by a smaller margin than most had predicted beforehand. 2-0 does not sound like total dominance, but total dominance was what the Irish had exerted. Malta were never really in the game, and continued their negative tactics throughout. The referee seemed to ignore the goalkeepers’ four steps rule, which Malta’s Cluett time and again exceeded.
2-0 came ten minutes into the second half, when Buttigieg conceded a corner and Sheedy’s kick from the right found the head of Moran, who got to the ball just ahead of Cluett. In the minutes previously Ireland had continued to aim for Cascarino’s head, and he would win the ball every time against the younger of the two Vellas. However, his knock-downs weren’t always dealt with in style by the home team’s midfielders, and Aldridge also seemed a tad exhausted after what had happened only a couple of nights earlier. The crowd are pleased and they are joyous in their rendition of “You’ll never walk alone”, and are surely expecting a win of an even greater margin having added that second goal relatively early in the second half. A couple of minutes after 2-0, O’Leary flicks a Whelan free-kick wide. The game after this seems to go into a bit of a stalemate, where Eire clearly lack their usual energy, and Malta appear content with keeping figures down. O’Leary has his name taken by dos Santos when he barges into Azzopardi from behind, and the Malta left back receives treatment. However, he is not injured, but once back up on his feet he’s being summoned to the bench to take a seat, and he is unserimoniously replaced by forward David Carabott. So what does the substitution mean for Malta’s tactics? Degiorgio, who has been seen more and more in a defensive capacity on the left hand side so far in the second half continues in that role, however with no recognized full-back behind him. Carabott goes up front, with Busuttil dropping slightly deeper. Gregory is more often in the second half seen in a right wingback role, while Camilleri continues to mystify spectators as to what his part really implies: is he following Houghton? Is he supposed to add steel to midfield in some kind of left-sided anchor role? Difficult to say.
20 minutes from time there’s a second substitution, this time for the home team, when the excellent Houghton’s replaced by Norwich City’s Townsend. This will mean that Whelan goes slightly to the right of midfield, though not working as your typical wide midfielder, just to leave space for Townsend (and McGrath) centrally. Hughton from his full-back position in the second half still does not make a lot of forays into the Maltese half of the pitch, and even Staunton on the opposite side seems to have been placed under less freedom than he had been enjoying during the opening 45 minutes. There’s a second Irish booking when Whelan, who’s had a couple of altercations with visiting players already, strongly challenges Degiorgio, and then raises his arm towards Busuttil’s face when the Malta forward approaches him. Despite his at times slightly foul mood, Whelan’s had another good game in the green midfield. However, his second yellow of the qualifiers now means he will miss the crunch showdown versus Hungary next week.
Entering the final ten minutes, Ireland allow Malta to twice come close to Bonner’s goal, and the Celtic ‘keeper has to be alert to tip a Busuttil cross-cum-shot over his bar at the near post, before Buttigieg wastes a free-kick in a good position just outside the 18 yard box by shooting well wide. Until then the visitors’ supply lines had been well cut off by Ireland, who never allowed Malta the freedom of expressing counter attacks like was seen from them in Hungary. The final minutes sees little in terms of quality, and there’s a cheer from the crowd when it is announced that Tony Cascarino’s been picked as ‘man of the match’ by a local jury. Fair enough. Ireland go second in the table a point ahead of both Hungary and Northern Ireland, but the former have played a match less and are still undefeated. With the Magyars to visit Dublin in a week’s time, all’s set for one heck of a battle.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND:
1 Bonner 6.6
his job consists of keeping his concentration levels up. Barely has a save to make all afternoon, but is alert when Busuttil’s cross almost finds its way in on the near post.
2 Hughton 6.6
a steady if not spectacular performance. Solely focused on his defensive duties.
3 Staunton 6.8
gets to hit a few long balls from the back, and again combines alright with Sheedy down the left hand side, but also is not very adventurous in coming forward.
4 O’Leary 6.7
hardly challenged at the back, causes a bit of havoc when going forward for attacking set-pieces.
5 Moran 7.2
has Busuttil in his pocket, wins every challenge with him whether it is on the ground or in the air. Heads home a good goal.
6 Whelan 7.1
lies relatively deep and is as always a great passer of the ball. Has a couple of efforts from distance which are close to finding its target.
7 McGrath 7.0
effective in his destroyer role in midfield, and is often seen as high up the pitch as around the Malta penalty area.
8 Houghton 7.3
another inspirational display by the enigma. Gave the Maltese a lot of trouble from his wide right position, despite often being attended to by Degiorgio. Taken off to rapturous applause.
(13 Townsend –
shows some nice touches and his strength when coming on into central midfield.)
9 Stapleton 6.7
unfortunately had to come off early, but managed to leave a fine impression nevertheless. Sliced a pass through for Houghton, and headed just wide when challenged by Azzopardi, the challenge which eventually saw him come off.
(14 Aldridge 6.5
very anonymous, well marked by Galea. Clearly not at his peak, but did not wish to play in this fixture originally.)
10 Cascarino 7.4
deservedly won the ‘Man of the Match’ award. Wins every single aerial challenge with his marker, and causes the Malta defence so much bother. Closer to scoring from his feet than with his head, ironically.
11 Sheedy 6.6
despite not facing an outright full-back, he does not have a particularly impressive game. Tries to combine with Staunton, but does not get into an awful lot of crossing positions. Does assist for 2-0 from a corner kick, though.
1 Cluett 6.7
a bit hesitant perhaps in coming for the corner which Moran heads home, but other than that assured and steady, as has become features of his game.
2 E Camilleri 6.3
not particularly at home in a midfield role, clumsy and uncomfortable on the ball. Much better when he can contribute in defence, as he does have to double up with Azzopardi in order to try and halt Houghton.
3 Azzopardi 6.5
troubled afternoon predominantly caused by the presence of Houghton. Offered little in coming forward.
(13 Carabott –
unable to do much after coming on.)
4 Galea 6.6
deals with Aldridge better than he handles Stapleton. Decent in the challenge, not so good with the ball at his feet.
5 S Vella 5.8
has the unenviable task of marking Cascarino, and comes out short in every single aerial battle. And there’s a few!
6 Buttigieg 6.8
you always get a performance from Buttigieg in a national team shirt. Sweeps well, is not afraid of advancing ball at feet, and also has the physique to challenge the Irish.
7 Busuttil 6.5
has a very difficult task up front against two such strong central defenders. Moves about a lot, but causes little direct harm to the home side.
8 R Vella 6.6
composed as always, but often has to carry out defensive duties due to the odd decision of Malta playing without a recognized right back.
9 Scerri 6.2
same role which served him so well in Budapest, but has a much more difficult opponent in Staunton, and is also without Carabott’s tireless, unselfish running in attack, which makes it harder for him to influence on the game.
10 Degiorgio 6.4
has to cover a lot of ground defensively due to Houghton’s presence, so can not have a lot of say in the Irish half of the pitch.
11 Gregory 6.5
another workmanlike performance from the midfield man, who takes turns with Vella to cover the right back territory.