Republic of Ireland 1 Poland 1
Shane Long came off the bench to keep the Republic of Ireland’s chance of qualification for Euro 2016 alive with a dramatic late equaliser against Poland.
The Southampton frontman’s 91st-minute strike – the 12th goal of his senior international career – snatched a 1-1 draw with the Group D leaders, who remain unbeaten as they attempt to book a trip to France.
Slawomir Peszko’s 26th-minute opener had looked to be enough to keep the Poles in the driving seat for one of the two automatic spots, but Long’s intervention denied them at the death in a classic game of two halves.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill had admitted in the run-up to the match that defeat would represent a “big dent” to his side’s hopes, and a tepid first-half display in front of a raucous crowd swelled by a large contingent from Ireland’s sizeable Polish community did not augur well.
But the response after the break was concerted and was eventually rewarded to set up a potentially pivotal showdown with Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in June.
O’Neill had kept the nation guessing over his starting line-up, with left-back a particular focus as Burnley’s Stephen Ward struggled to shake off an ankle problem amid speculation that Hull winger Robbie Brady might be asked to deputise.
That proved to be correct, but it was a gamble which was ultimately to backfire as Peszko exploited the 23-year-old’s lack of international experience in the role.
After a scrappy start to the game, it was the Poles who settled the better with Grzegorz Krychowiak orchestrating from the middle of the field and wide-man Maciej Rybus linking well with striker Robert Lewandowski, who had a relatively quiet first half.
With only Wes Hoolahan showing any signs of real intent for the home side, the visitors dominated possession to leave Robbie Keane starved of the ball and Poland goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski untroubled for much of the opening 45 minutes.
Hoolahan dragged a left-footed shot wide from 20 yards with 10 minutes gone, but Krychowiak should have done better when he met Rybus’ 20th-minute free-kick only to steer his header harmlessly wide.
The respite, however, was only temporary, and Ireland fell behind with 26 minutes gone when Brady dallied on a bouncing ball and Peszko dispossessed him before surging past covering defender Marc Wilson and blasting a left-footed shot across Shay Given and inside the far post.
O’Neill, who had made seven changes to the side which lost 1-0 in Scotland in November, needed to see a significant response, and it came belatedly, if in limited fashion, at the end of the half.
Ireland enjoyed an extended period in enemy territory which ended when winger Aiden McGeady chipped a delicate effort over the stranded Fabianski, but saw the ball fly agonisingly wide of the far post.
O’Neill kept the same 11 men on the pitch at the start of the second half, but asked Hoolahan to move to the left side of midfield as Jon Walters joined Keane up front. And, although that helped to give his side a stronger foothold in the game, the openings he craved failed to materialise.
However, that might have changed in fortuitous fashion seven minutes into the half when Brady’s deflected cross looped over Fabianski, only to come back off the inside of the post.
Ireland gradually built up a head of steam as Poland retreated, and Fabianski was relieved to see Wilson’s 64th-minute header fly straight into his waiting hands.
The goalkeeper was beaten eight minutes later when Keane sent a downward header from substitute James McClean’s raking cross towards goal, but the Los Angeles Galaxy forward was denied by the same post which had repelled Brady’s earlier effort.
However, Ireland rescued a point at the death when Long, an 83rd-minute replacement for midfielder Glenn Whelan, was in the right place at the right time as Hoolahan’s header dropped to him, and he lifted the ball over Fabianski to secure what could yet prove to be a precious point.