By Jim Wirth
Having lost their opening EURO 2004™ Group 10 qualifying game against Russia, the Republic of Ireland's fixture against Switzerland in Dublin tonight has taken on a great significance for the team and their manager Mick McCarthy.
The 4-2 defeat in Moscow was a genuine shock for the Irish side and their supporters who had become accustomed to better things after a fine display in the finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan. "We have had a bad start because we played badly in Russia," said McCarthy. "Let's not take anything away from Russia, they played well and scored four past us but that's the first time that's happened to us."
Certainly, the manner of their defeat was upsetting to the former central defender, and a game against a Switzerland side who are brimming with exciting young talent and fresh from a 4-1 win against Georgia in their opening game and a 1-1 draw in Albania on Saturday could have come at a better time.
With the Under-21 side having proved their worth by reaching the finals of last summer's UEFA European Under-21 Championship, Swiss coach Jakob Kuhn has been able to bring new blood into the senior side for the EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign. "We have had really good success with the youngsters for some time and now they're slowly starting to break through into the national team," Khun said. "Out of the Under-21 national team which reached the European Championship semi-final, five are now in the national team squad.
'A football identity'
"We've built a younger squad, and the development work that began in 1995 is slowly starting to bear fruit," he added of the seismic changes in the structure of Swiss football. "Since 1995, the Swiss coaches have worked according to a uniform philosophy. We understand each other when we speak to each other, and that's an important factor in a country having a football identity."
Having previously coached the national U17 and U19 sides, Kuhn is well aware of the level of talent he has at his command, and buoyed by that early win, he is confident that Switzerland can be one of the top two sides in Group 10. "Of course I'm confident," he said. "We've got a relatively young team that has great potential for the future. We've made a good start, but we've got difficult opponents ahead of us. The good start we've made will help us, but there's a long way to go until the end of the qualifying competition."
McCarthy, meanwhile, is also in upbeat mood despite the challenges that lie ahead. "I still believe we can beat Russia when they come to Dublin and that negates that result completely," he said. "It's what we do between now and when we play them again in five games time."
Russia will take on Albania tonight as they aim to take maximum points from their first two games. Should they continue to show the form that saw them overcome the Irish, both Kuhn and McCarthy may find they have a steep hill to reach the finals in Portugal.
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