Hunt lays down qualifying target

The 29-year-old midfielder played his part in Saturday night’s 2-0

victory in Macedonia which left the Republic firmly in the race for

qualification from Group B. But the Slovakians and the Russians

also both won at home to maintain the pressure, and the first round

of fixtures next season could have a major say in which of them

ultimately heads to Poland and Ukraine next summer. Having missed

out on World Cup qualification in a controversial play-off against

France 18 months ago, Hunt is not prepared to leave anything to

chance. He said: “We knew the two of them would probably win, so it

was important we won. “Thankfully we did and we move on to the next

one. “It sets is up for a massive finish. It keeps us in there with

Slovakia at home and Russia away. “We might not have to win the two

of them, but if we can get four points it would be massive.” Hunt

has seen at close hand how effective skipper Robbie Keane can be,

and never more so than in Skopje when, despite struggling with a

groin injury, he took his international goals tally to 51 with a

match-winning double. His eighth-minute opener instantly defused

the hugely partisan atmosphere at the Philip II Stadium and helped

to lay the foundation for a victory fashioned very much in the

style of pragmatic boss Giovanni Trapattoni. Hunt said: “The first

goal got the crowd on their backs, and then the second one was

gifted on a plate to him [Keane], so it was nice. “He could have

got the hat-trick near the end, but we will take two and the win.

“To be honest, the second half was a bit ugly, but we wanted to

make it ugly if we could because what’s the point of opening

ourselves up and being caught on the break? “It was a good

‘Trapattoni’ performance, I suppose.” On a personal note, Hunt

could be forgiven for wishing the season was just starting after

returning from injury to help his club preserve their Premier

League status, and then pulling on the green shirt once again. He

will hope for more action in Tuesday night’s friendly clash with

Italy – with whom Ireland drew both home and away in there last

World Cup qualifying campaign – in Belgium before heading off to

enjoy his summer break. Hunt said: “I am buzzing. I have had three

horrible summers and this summer, I can enjoy it on the back of a

good win. “We can take it easy and go into Italy and enjoy it.”