A dramatic Shane Long goal in the dying moments against Poland at Lansdowne Road last night has just about kept Ireland’s qualification hopes for the Euro 2016 finals alive. I would not have taken a draw if such were offered to me by the gods in advance, so I do not accept that the result is quite something to celebrate. Well, certainly not like how RTÉ’s Eamon Dunphy was reacting in studio post-game anyway (see from 09:40 here). He’d gotten so carried away, he thought we’d won until Liam Brady reminded him we drew the game! I suspect Dunphy went overboard due to the delight of witnessing a concrete and evident shift in playing philosophy (and it having borne at least some fruit) after years of exasperation under Giovanni Trapattoni followed by Martin O’Neill’s cautious beginnings.
A shift is something to welcome and I can empathise with Dunphy to a degree, but Ireland’s present position in the group should serve to bring one quickly back down to earth. We are in fourth position at qualification’s half-way point. The match last night was rightly billed in the build-up as a must-win game if we were to have a serious chance of qualifying automatically, but, with victory away in Poland later on in the campaign a very fanciful ask, we’re now realistically fighting for no better than a play-off place (unless we can manage to finish as the best third-place finisher out of all the qualification groups, of course). The home Scotland game in June will be a cup-final, winner-takes-third-place type of situation.
First-half last night, we were limited and ineffective. I feared we were in for a long night of fruitless, paining and draining huffing and puffing. We didn’t look like we felt we needed to win, nor did it look like we were set up for a victory. There was no urgency or tempo. There are positives to be taken from the game though. We showed that we can up our game when required. Our second-half performance and effort was much, much improved from that of the first. We were a completely different side after half-time. As O’Neill said, we deserved at the very least a draw, all things considered. We ended with 57 per cent of possession and thirteen efforts on goal to their six. We had three of those efforts on target whilst their goal from Sławomir Peszko was their solitary effort on target. We had five corners to their one. Poland admittedly sat back after they scored, but we showed good endeavour and intensity in response. It’s up to us to take advantage of opportunity and we tried our best to do that. We made them look very ordinary and, although we failed to create anything seriously clear-cut, we really should have beaten them after such a dominant second-half. They were utterly non-creative themselves and I can’t imagine too may Polish fans being overly enamoured with their team’s performance, even if it was an away match for them. Kamil Glik was talking us down in an interview before the game and bigging up Poland’s supposed technical superiority; that certainly wasn’t evident.
We’ll beat Scotland at home if we play like we did in the second-half last night, so that is something from which comfort can be taken, despite our present group position. As stated, we’re fighting for third place now, but I think it’s still a realistic possibility considering we showed we are capable of performances that can get us through the remainder of this group unbeaten. That was what I needed to see; intensity, dynamism and desire. The most depressing and frustrating thing to witness time and time again under Trapattoni was the complete lack of a plan B when ultra-conservative plan A clearly wasn’t working, but O’Neill has proven that he can at least make the changes that are required or that he is at least prepared to try something different. He is flexible; that is to be welcomed.
O’Neill did comment post-game that had we had a few more minutes, we might have won the game; perhaps another way of looking at it would be to say that had he brought Long on earlier, we mightn’t have needed those extra few minutes. Long might have been able to do more damage had he been given the time to do so. Albeit late (and better that than never), the changes, particularly bringing James McClean on, were very positive and made a huge difference nevertheless; I hope that inspires confidence in playing more positively in future, even if it does happen to be riskier. I’m confident most supporters would prefer the latter after the past few years. The second-half was tense, refreshing and inspiring; anything but mind-numbing. It would have been fun if it weren’t for the fact we just couldn’t get the ball in the net for so long. The crowd responded with appreciation and it is that sort of adventure that will re-capture the public’s imagination. I’m all for it!
Individually-speaking, Robbie Keane simply wasn’t in the game up front; it was not his fault for being left alone up there for most of the game though, especially at this latter stage of his career. That was a tactical issue from the outset. Similarly, James McCarthy was almost anonymous in the first-half, but that was down to us by-passing midfield and being unable to string anything meaningful together. Jon Walters and Glenn Whelan did what Jon Walters and Glenn Whelan do. Séamus Coleman was more influential and daring in this game than in any game I’ve seen him play for us before; it’s a delight to see him being afforded that freedom so Ireland can begin to get the best from his obvious abilities. Admittedly, he should have done better with the stinging shot he skited wide in the second-half, but I think Keane, on the other side of the ball and clearly mulling over (in a split second) whether or not to take it under his own wing, ever-so-slightly put Coleman off and that hindered the right-back’s run-up. There is no doubt that Coleman hesitated in his approach which indicated that he could not have been 100 per cent focused on connecting cleanly with that ball. It was down to uncertainty as to where Ireland’s record goal-scorer was moving. If they were club team-mates with a developed chemistry from weekly experience together, Keane would have known to be well out of the way and that ball, rather than ending up in the stands, would have been in the back of the net.
Wes Hoolahan impressed me again throughout with his quality passing and ball-control. Aiden McGeady was obviously lacking match-sharpness after having been out of action with injury over the past weeks, although had he scored his chipped effort in the first-half, it would have been an absolute beautiful goal; he made fools of two Polish defenders in the build-up to that effort and probably could have somehow contrived a penalty out of the situation had he been more cynical, like his Polish counterparts. I felt bad for McGeady when he was substituted off. His body language said it all; he looked mentally beaten despite O’Neill’s attempt to put an arm around him in consolation. At that point, my hope was nearing evaporation too.
Robbie Brady had a poor game, unfortunately. I was surprised to see him start at left-back, considering that is not his conventional position, and had thought Marc Wilson might play there with Ciaran Clark getting the nod in the centre. He was very much at fault for Peszko’s goal though in giving away possession so cheaply with a loose pass to Wilson and his much-lauded dead-ball delivery was lacking considerably on numerous occasions. John O’Shea looked eager to make himself as small as he possibly could when they scored. You’d like to see your defender trying to make himself big to block in such a situation, but I suspect he must have felt Shay Given in goals had the angle covered and was wary of the shot potentially taking a wicked deflection off him and going in. Perhaps Given could have done better to cover the angle. I don’t think Wilson, who was the one who actually lost possession again after a hack at the ball to win it back (although it would be unfair to claim he was ever under proper control of the ball during the passage of play), could reasonably have done much else in the lead-up. He was put in a desperate situation; very stretched and over-run by two men. Peszko’s finish was very precise when he reclaimed possession and couldn’t have been placed better. One might ask why Wilson didn’t simply knock the ball out for a corner when he had the opportunity instead of trying to drag it back and into his possession – I suppose it is easy to suggest that in hindsight – but defenders will (rightly) always seek to avoid giving away corners and I don’t think he could have reasonably expected or foreseen the out-of-view Peszko to be oncoming behind him so quickly as he was engaged with attempting to claw back possession. Brady was sleeping even after he’d put Wilson in trouble in allowing the eventual goal-scorer to get ahead of him; it was downright poor from him throughout the whole sequence, from beginning to end.
Our defence did OK otherwise; they weren’t really challenged besides that and Given didn’t have much to do all game. I was pleased that he started though and I would generally feel more secure with him there in place of David Forde, who would actually be my third-choice behind Kieren Westwood also. As I’ve outlined, both substitutes did well and helped raise the game; McClean for his tenacity and directness and Long for his movement and swiftness of foot. I greatly admired McClean’s crunching tackle soon after he’d come on. He’d promised us that during the week and he duly delivered. Stuff like that really makes a difference psychologically both on and off the field; it helped bring the crowd into the game more and got them fully behind the team for the final last-quarter push. In that sense, it was just like Roy Keane’s famous tackle on Marc Overmars in the opening two minutes of our World Cup 2002 qualifier against the Netherlands in Lansdowne Road back in September of 2001.
I thought the referee Jonas Eriksson was poor, blowing up for nonsense and insignificant jostling throughout. He was booking Ireland players all night for little, niggly fouls, yet the Pole who took Coleman out after a race for the ball in the first-half got away without a card. The referee also somehow gave a foul against a Walters struggling to stand with two opponents crawling all over him. At least we got 5 minutes of injury time for the Polish team’s faffing around and play-acting, but we could have had another few minutes, to be honest. O’Neill did say we might have scored another had we extra time, although it is also worth considering that, after Long equalised, it was the Poles, off the back-foot again, who controlled most of the possession for what little of the game remained. It’s a concern, as is very much more so our current position in the group (food for thought; in previous campaigns with two qualifying teams, we’d now be all but out), but at least our fight of old is back.