How Mexico must have longed for just a smattering of the pragmatism and physical power displayed by the Irish in the decisive Group E game in Al Aïn this Friday. For in spite of their commitment to attack, the North Americans were undone by a Stephen Paisley header. Finishing top of the group, the Irish will take on Colombia in the knockout stages. Mexico, meanwhile, will be packing bags heavy with regrets, as they depart the Emirates in the knowledge that a similar offensive attitude in their first two games might have been rewarded with victory.

The draw played out between Côte d’Ivoire and Saudi Arabia significantly altered the equations surrounding the Mexico – Ireland Republic game. Whilst for the Tricolores, it was now win or bust, the Irish knew that, in a worst-case scenario, they could afford to lose and still be sure of qualifying as one of the best third-placed sides with a four-point haul.

Not surprisingly, this situation led to territorial domination by Eduardo Rergis’ charges during the early stages. Francisco Torres wriggled through on the right but was thwarted by Brian Murphy, who was giving Wayne Henderson a well-earned rest in the Irish goal (3’). Then Ricardo Jimenez unleashed a missile, which passed just above the crossbar of the grateful Greens (13’). The small band of Mexican fans, conspicuous by their silence during previous matches, became increasingly vociferous.

But it was the Irish who displayed the cutting edge. Fed neatly at the near post, Stephen Eliott fired off an early shot, forcing Jose Martinez to parry magnificently (20’). But the Irish storm was just gathering pace, as from a free kick fired in by Willo Flood, Stephen Paisley, already on target against Côte d’Ivoire, rose above everyone else to head past the transfixed Mexican keeper (1-0, 35’). The job facing the CONCACAF side had just got a lot harder.

The end of the first period was marred by controversy. A foul provoked a general melee, and after order was restored, Brazilian referee Wilson Souza, dispatched Darren Potter and Jesus Palacio to an early bath. The second half would be played ten-a-side.

After the interval, the Mexicans proceeded to step up a gear. Joel Huiqui broke through the middle, fed Ignacio Torres on the right, who in turn supplied Aldo De Nigris. The Tigers forward produced an audacious backheel that was only cleared by a goal line intervention (49’). Similarly desperate defending was then required to keep out a shot on the turn from Mario Ortiz (53’). As the tension reached fever pitch, Rergis ranted and raved pitchside, before being ordered to the stands, where his agitation showed no sign of abating.

On the pitch, the Mexicans continued to push forward. Ortiz struck a low shot from the edge of the penalty area which grazed Murphy’s post (58’), then Torres tried his luck from long range, with similar results (65’). By now, the entire Mexican bench was in turmoil, and Rergis’ assistant was soon keeping his boss company…

Undaunted by their misfortunes, the Tricolores kept hammering away. Francisco Torres found Ortiz in the penalty area, the Cruz Azul striker shot powerfully goalwards, only for Murphy to claw it away for a corner (77’). Try as they might, the Mexicans just could not score. “It was a mad match,” opined Stephen Kelly when the dust had settled. They had a hatful of chances but we resisted well.” So well, in fact, that the Tricolores suffered the ignominy of conceding a second goal when a counter-attack was terminated by Kelly (2-0, 84’). Group E top spot was secured by the Irish, who will remain in Al Aïn to take on Colombia, second in Group F. “We wanted the win to stay here, as we’re really comfortable in Al Aïn,” confided Kelly after the match.

Coach Gerry Smith was thrilled with his team: “I am so proud of my players; they battled throughout the match and kept on running and running, and Brian Murphy produced some top-notch saves. We wanted to win and finish in first place, to avoid having to get the calculator out.” But the enthusiasm of the Irish coach was tempered somewhat by the prospect of having to do without three key players (Darren Potter, Glenn Whelan and Stephen Kelly), all of whom are suspended for the next round. “I am gutted for all of them. They don’t deserve this. It was not a dirty match, so it’s hard for them and the whole squad to take.”