McCarthy hopes to clear final hurdle at last

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Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy is refusing to discuss a new contract until the outcome of his country’s latest venture is known.

He has already suffered two near-misses in trying to qualify for the past two major international tournaments.

And although he is still dedicated to the task of restoring Ireland as World Cup contenders, he admits: "I’d like to think there is a plum job for me in club football at some stage."

The Irish thrashed Cyprus 4-0 at Lansdowne Road on Saturday. Niall Quinn scored to finally overtake Frank Stapleton’s 11-year record of 20 Irish goals. Other goals came from Ian Harte, David Connolly and Roy Keane. The Irish move on to 24 points, but Portugal’s 5-0 demolition of Estonia left McCarthy’s side behind the Group 2 winners on goal difference, and they face a two-legged play-off against as yet unknown Asian opponents.

The Asian qualifiers are yet to be completed, but Ireland could face Iran, Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan.

McCarthy added: "I know people are saying this is our best chance, better than the previous two, but there’s no way we are going to be facing any mugs in the play-off."

Of the countries definitely going to the World Cup, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Italy are included after victory on Saturday earned largely thanks to Alessandro del Piero. The Juventus striker, whose return to top form has coincided with the qualifying campaign, struck with a free-kick just before half-time to give the Italians a 1-0 win against Hungary in Group 8.

They, along with Russia and Denmark secured their place in next summer’s tournament, to be hosted by Japan and South Korea.

Russia thrashed Switzerland 4-0 with Vladimir Beschastnykh notching a first-half hat-trick and Egor Titov curling in a late free-kick.

The Czech Republic thrashed Bulgaria 6-0, but that was not enough to take them to the top of Group 3.

That honour and automatic qualification went to Denmark, who were also 6-0 winners against Iceland in Copenhagen with Everton’s Thomas Gravesen and Ebbe Sand each scoring twice.

Holders France, plus Poland, Sweden and Spain were already assured of their places.

Eight of the nine play-off spots have also been confirmed. The Ukraine will face Germany in a two-legged play-off next month, while Belgium play the Czechs and Romania face Slovenia. Turkey will play either Austria or Israel, who play next month.

It was a sombre affair in Arnhem, as the Netherlands won 4-0 against Andorra. They became the biggest European casualty last month. Ruud van Nistelrooy scored twice, but they - along with the likes of Norway and Yugoslavia - will be missing next May.

In Moldova, Turkey made light work of their hosts with a 3-0 victory, but Sweden were already Group 4 winners.

Celtic’s Henrik Larsson scored his eighth goal in ten qualifiers with a penalty for the Swedes yesterday, as they completed their unbeaten campaign with a 3-0 victory in Azerbaijan. Another Celtic striker, John Hartson, scored for Wales in their 1-0 over Belarus in Group 5 on Saturday.

Elsewhere yesterday, China reached the finals for the first time with a scrappy 1-0 win over lowly Oman in an Asian Zone Group B qualifier.

It means that manager Bora Milutinovic has done it again. The 60-year-old Yugoslav is now headed to his fifth World Cup with his fifth different team, having coached Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990, the United States in 1994 and Nigeria in 1998.

In South America, Hibs wing-back Ulises de la Cruz, scored the opening goal as Ecuador moved a step closer to their first finals after a 5-1 win in Bolivia.

Ecuador are level with Paraguay in second place in the CONMEBOL qualifying table.

The qualifiers so far:

Holders: France

Co-hosts: Japan, South Korea

Europe: Poland, Sweden, Spain , Russia, England, Croatia, Portugal, Denmark, Italy.

European play-offs:

First leg: 10/11 November. Return leg: 13/14 November.

Ukraine v Germany.

Belgium v Czech Republic.

Romania v Slovenia.

Turkey v Austria or Israel.

Republic of Ireland v Iran,

Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan.

South America: Argentina.

Africa: Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, South Africa.

CONCACAF: Costa Rica.

Asia: China.