Republic of Ireland 1 Belarus 2
Tuesday night in Cork may ultimately be all about which individuals will make Martin O’Neill’s European Championship squad, but the record books will show that the collective went down to a first defeat in seven games, writes Brendan O'Brien.
Losing for the first time since the loss to Poland on the same scoreline last October won’t have pleased O’Neill, but he had little time to dwell on it given his squad for next month’s tournament was due in at Uefa HQ before 11pm.
The fact is that the result matters not a jot in the overall scheme of things. Of considerably more importance was the fact that none of the 17 players utilised on the night seemed to suffer anything resembling an injury.
For that everyone was grateful given the earlier news that Harry Arter had returned to England after injuring his thigh in training on Monday and Robbie Keane was struggling to shake off the calf problem he picked up in Dublin on Saturday.
And the match itself?
Ireland started brightly with local boy David Meyler and Darron Gibson sitting deep in midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation and it was Gibson who provided the impetus for the encouraging opening which saw the home side play with fluency and intent.
It didn’t last.
A team showing eleven changes from the side that started last Friday’s friendly against the Netherlands in Dublin – and only four of those who started the second leg play-off defeat of Bosnia-Herzegovina last November – inevitably began to stutter.
It was a mistake from Meyler, who overran the ball in midfield, that set the Belarussians up for the opening goal. Three players broke at speed when the ball was turned over and Mikhail Hardzeichuk sent a superb shot past Shay Given and high into the net.
It was their first goal scored since October of last year.
That followed on from one of the rare half-chances created by the Republic at the other end. James McClean’s harrying of a defender initiated the mistake that allowed Daryl Murphy cross for Aiden McGeady, but the ball whisked off his toe.
Murphy had a similar issue on the half-hour when another Belarus error gifted him possession, but the Ipswich Town striker’s search for a first international goal was undone by his hesitancy on the ball and the danger was cleared again.
It wouldn’t be his night. Again.
The visitors looked the more dangerous side for considerable spells in that opening half and Given had to produce an outstanding save to deny Maksim Valadzko on 35 minutes, which he did by turning the rasping shot over his bar.
O’Neill resisted any urge to switch things around at the interval and Ireland responded by putting the squeeze on the eastern Europeans who struggled to lift the siege for long periods as the hosts attacked the Shed End.
Clark alone had three headers on goal in a 60-second period and Meyler a shot blocked, but that was after an unmarked Murphy sent a six-yard header over the crossbar when teed up perfectly by McGeady’s dinked delivery.
You had to feel for the man.
The second Belarus goal was almost inevitable given all that and it came via Valadzko who cut inside Christie after 62 minutes before directing a weak enough shot past Given thanks in no small way to a deflection off the body of a covering Richard Keogh.
Two-nil down clearly wasn’t sitting well with O’Neill who promptly threw on Shane Long and Wes Hoolahan while David Forde also replaced Given in goal.
Long’s arrival raised eyebrows given the fitness issues facing so many of the squad’s other strikers and the knee gash he himself suffered against the Dutch. Yet his arrival sparked a revival.
It was the Southampton striker who gathered the ball with his back to goal with 17 minutes left and laid off the perfect pass for Stephen Ward who struck it hard, low and sweetly past the helpless Belarus goalkeeper.
More replacements arrived and Ireland continued to dictate, but Long dirtied his bib by opting for a high-odds shot which was easily saved when he had three players, including an unmarked Hoolahan, cantering into the area in support.
Try as they might, the equaliser just wouldn’t come.
Republic of Ireland: S Given, C Christie, R Keogh, C Clark, S Ward, J Hendrick, D Gibson, D Meyler, A McGeady, J McClean, D Murphy.
Subs: W Hoolahan for Gibson and S Long for Murphy (both 64); D Forde for Given (65); E O’Kane for Meyler and O’Dowda for McGeady (both 74); D McGoldrick for McClean 78).
Belarus: S Chernik, A Martynovich, D Paliakov, M Korzun, I Stasevich, A Hleb, M Hardzeichuk, S Kisliak, M Valadzko, M Sivakov, M Yanush.
Subs: S Paliitsevich for Hardzeichuk (75); S Krivets for Hleb (90), P Niakhaichyk for Sivakov (92).
Referee: D Jakimovski (FYR Macedonia).