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NIIGATA — Overcoming a 1-0 deficit at halftime and the absence of star playmaker Roy Keane, Ireland produced a great comeback in the second half to battle to a 1-1 draw against Cameroon on Saturday afternoon in their Group E game at Big Swan Niigata Stadium in the opening game of the World Cup on cohost Japan’s home soil.

The Irish players struggled in the first half, and couldn’t find their usual fast-tempo passing game, while Cameroon passed the ball around well and created a number of scoring chances on the right flank to threaten the Irish goal.

The Indomitable Lions came close to opening the score in the 18th minute through Samuel Eto’o but he was thwarted by a great save from Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given.

The two-time African champion went ahead in the 39th minute. Real Mallorca midfielder Samuel Eto’o received the ball from Geremi of Real Madrid on the right side of the box and cut down to the byline taking Ireland defender Steve Staunton with him. Eto’o faked the Aston Villa defender once before passing the ball to Patrick Mboma, who had been left unmarked, and the Sunderland striker had no problems putting the ball in the back of the net.

Despite the absence of Keane, Ireland seemed rejuvenated after the break. With Ian Harte attacking on the left flank, the Irish regained their momentum and attacking form, while Cameroon appeared to slow down.

In the 52nd minute, Sunderland midfielder Kevin Kilbane sent a cross into the box. Cameroon defender Raymond Kalla headed the ball clear but only as far as Matt Holland, who fired home the equalizer from just outside the penalty box.

The Irish continued to attack and nearly added another in the 63rd minute when Robbie Keane connected with a shot off a cross from Gary Breen. But Cameroon goalkeeper Boukar Alioum made a fine save to his right to foil the Leeds United player.

Ireland seemed the happier of the two teams at the final whistle and the players made a point of thanking their fans, who filled the stadium with green.

“It was a good result,” Holland said. “I thought we played very well in the second half. If anything I thought we were the stronger team in the second half, and that’s something we can be very pleased with.

“We haven’t been beaten, that gives us a good chance of advancing in the competition.”

Cameroon, not surprisingly, looked disappointed. For them it was a case of two points lost rather than one point gained.

“We made a mistake and were a bit too nervous in the second half as the Irish rallied hard. But overall I am happy with the result,” Cameroon coach Winfreid Schaefer said. “But the team is a bit down at the moment because we ended up with a draw after leading 1-0 at halftime.”

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