It mightn't have been Ireland's greatest night in Cyprus, but it certainly wasn't their worst. Not by any means. And for that, we should be grateful. Victories for Italy and Bulgaria last night meant that as the clock ticked down in Nicosia and the game tied at 1-1, Ireland's play-off spot was nowhere near as certain as it was before yesterday's series of games but then Robbie Keane popped up to earn Ireland the three points. Thank heavens for that.
Keane admitted afterwards "we made it hard for ourselves" but that goal, those points, will be gratefully received even if a performance that was a few notches before full pelt will be a worry in the longer term. It might be something of a contradiction but perhaps Ireland's biggest issue last night, not for the first time in this qualifying campaign, was that they scored too early. Kevin Doyle's effort on five minutes put a full stop on an energetic and wholly positive opening spell. But the minute it went in, that attacking intent seemed to disappear and what could have been a comfortable game turned difficult before Keane's late intervention. It is something that needs to be worked on. Afterwards Giovanni Trapattoni alluded to the "heat" and, astonishingly, being "afraid" but insisted "we will improve. There are little situations we have to be clever about".
So aside from the result, what were the differences between this and 2006? Well, where three years back there was chaos, last night there was at least some semblance of order. In the build-up to the game, Trapattoni preached all things sensible; simple stuff, you know, like standing over the ball at opposition free-kicks, taking your time at throw-ins, that kind of thing. The Italian's very presence in the dug-out inspired more confidence but there were other factors that hinted at a more positive outcome, too. In the days before this qualifier, you sensed that the locals were only mildly interested. Following Apoel Nicosia's qualification for the Champions League group stages, European football is the only game in town. Cyprus's champions drew a crowd of 19,000 to the GSP Stadium 10 days back for their play-off game against FC Copenhagen; last night there was barely 5,000 present, and at least half had a tricolour wrapped around them.
Those sun-tanned, or perhaps sun-burnt, supporters were given an early treat. Five minutes in, Andreas Avraam nicked a Damien Duff cross off the head of Stephen Hunt but the intervention was but a momentary escape. The Wexford native's deep corner was nodded back across goal by John O'Shea and after Keith Andrews swung his leg at it, Kevin Doyle spun around to place a shot past Sofronis Avgousti. So far, so straight-forward.
And that's the way it proved for a good 29 minutes. Given did make a fine save from a looping Ioannis Okkas header 60 seconds after the goal but, after that, Ireland could have been sitting back in a sun-lounger sipping the local brew for all the trouble Cyprus were causing them. But then they got too comfortable, almost too relaxed. Ioannis Okkas narrowly failed to direct an Efstathios Aloneftis cross past Given but 30 seconds later, after Richard Dunne could have given away a penalty for a challenge on Okkas, and Sean St Ledger just might have handled inside the box, Marios Ilia made all the appeals redundant by firing a 20-yard bullet.
So back at 1-1, a touch of uncertainty began to spread. Just a touch, mind. O'Shea seemed to be at a loss at how to get to grips with Aloneftis on the left-wing, while Dunne was going about his business with a worrying uncertainty. There was, without doubt, the potential for it to spread but a half-time talk with Trap seemed to calm things down. Only just.
Ireland did pick up the pulse of the game once more, with Hunt narrowly heading wide at the far post and not long after Avgousti produced a marvellous finger-tip save to deny Glenn Whelan a goal good enough to win any game. But Cyprus were now the better team on the ball, the one passing it around with authority and purpose. Dunne, for a second time, could have been penalised for edging Okkas out of the way inside the area but the referee kept the whistle out of his mouth. Thank God. Aiden McGeady came on for Hunt and Caleb Folan for Doyle, but while all the right personnel were there for an all out final assault it was two veterans of the 2002 World Cup who stole victory on 83 minutes. Duff's excellent cross from the right found the head of Keane 10 yards out and the Irish captain got to the ball before the flapping Cyprus keeper.
Second place now looks secure enough. And there'll be no more nightmares about Nicosia.