The Republic of Ireland's hopes of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2004™ were raised by a dramatic late victory over Albania in their Group 10 encounter at Lansdowne Road thanks to a stoppage-time own goal from Ardian Aliaj.
With Ireland reduced to ten men by a late hamstring injury to Damien Duff, the game looked to be drifting towards stalemate. But in the second minute of stoppage time a diagonal pass from Stephen Carr picked out Gary Doherty in the box, and the big striker's cross was turned into the net by Aliaj's attempted clearance.
Albania coach Hans-Peter Briegel was upset that Ireland had not returned the ball to Albania in the build-up to the goal, the visitors having kicked it into touch after an injury to Igli Tare. "Ireland had the ball to throw back but they didn't give it to Albania," he said.
Ireland had started the game brightly, with Robbie Keane and Damien Duff causing panic in the Albanian defence. As the pressure mounted, an Irish goal seemed inevitable and, on six minutes, it came. A hopeful, lofted ball into the box seemed harmless, but Elvin Beqiri failed to clear under pressure from Kevin Kilbane. The ball then dropped for Keane, who drilled it past the exposed Fotaq Strakosha.
The Irish fans were still celebrating when the visitors equalised. Having lost concentration from the restart, Altin Rraklli found space on the left, before picking out Ervin Skela with a low cross. The unmarked Skela had time to calmly slot the ball past Given.
Duff continued to menace the visitors with his quick feet and darting runs, but Albania showed defensive nous and good organisation, with Geri Çipi outstanding. Ireland did have a good chance to regain the lead on 25 minutes, but Keane's curling attempt was well saved by Strakosha.
Despite general dominance on the part of the hosts, they struggled to fashion many clear chances and went into half-time level. The goal aside, Albania had threatened little although Tare toiled tirelessly upfront on his own.
Tare looked to have won a penalty on the hour, after his shot struck Carr's arm, but no penalty was given. The Irish failed to take advantage of this let-off, struggling for width and penetration. Coach Brian Kerr threw on substitutes Lee Carsley, Gary Doherty and Steven Reid, but a hamstring injury to Duff meant they had to complete the game with ten men. Duff will now almost certainly miss Wednesday's game with Georgia.
Shortly after Duff departed, Strakosha was taken off with concussion. Reserve goalkeeper Arian Beqaj nearly gifted the hosts a goal by spilling Carr's free-kick to Reid, but Çipi – who had twice brilliantly denied Keane – was on hand to clear.
A poor Carsley challenge gave Tare a late chance with a direct free-kick, but he fired over a nervous Irish wall. Ireland seemed set to rue their inability to break their stubborn opponents down when Aliaj made his last-gasp contribution.
'We got what we deserved'
After the game Ireland manager Kerr said that his side had deserved their victory. "I knew there was going to be a lot of injury time," he said. "In the end I feel we got what we deserved and they got what they deserved. We got a great start with that goal from Robbie Keane and that had been part of the game plan. But we got caught quickly after that which was slack on our part."