THE state-of-the-art stadium is up and running, the world-class manager in situ but behind the fashionable facade remains an Irish side that, like its predecessors, leans heaviest on character and commitment.
For 70 minutes last night, Russia played a different game to their hosts. Ireland went into the Group B encounter with their heads held high at the top of the table and yet their hearts were in their boots as the final quarter approached.
It was a painful evening up to then, one made all the more so not just because of the scoreboard but because of the optimism that preceded it and the nonchalant manner in which Dick Advocaat’s side had divested the crowd of their illusions.
Russia travelled to Dublin supposedly running something of a temperature given their opening loss to Slovakia in Moscow but there were no symptoms in evidence as they toyed with Giovanni Trapattoni’s side in the most perfunctory of manners.
The home side could point with some justification to the questionable decision to award a free-kick against Richard Dunne before the first goal but it would have been like lamenting a broken window when a storm had destroyed your house.
And this was almost the perfect storm.
The Russians showed in the 2008 European Championships – when they reached the semi-finals – that they are one of the continent’s footballing aristocrats and they went a long way to reaffirming that status here after missing out on the World Cup.
Such pretty patterns are rarely seen in Ireland when not knitted by kindly old grandmothers with a pair of needles and there was little the home side could do to interrupt the flow. Such assuredness was contrasted by the sight of Sean St Ledger, Aiden McGeady, Paul Green and Kevin Kilbane all losing possession under minimal pressure in the opening 20 minutes.
The gulf in class was just all too obvious. The Irish approach was vulgar in comparison to their opponents. The national team has always fed well off the scraps coughed up by route-one football – even pre-Jack Charlton – but it has become the side’s staple diet in this campaign.
Against both Armenia and Russia there was no attempt to hold possession, to try and dictate the rhythm of the game.
Where is the composed, fluid football that almost brought the French to their knees last November?
In that sense alone, Ireland have regressed and yet they very nearly rescued a point from the ashes thanks to Robbie Keane’s convenient fall in the Russian penalty area and a Shane Long goal courtesy of that same route-one approach.
Suddenly, an evening that threatened to be grizzly held the prospect of greatness and, though it fell short of that, the willpower and sheer doggedness of an outgunned Irish side that refused to accept what seemed inevitable was admirable. In the end it wasn’t enough and the pity of it is that the day had promised so much.
It was in and around six o’clock yesterday evening when the news from Yerevan began to leap from the screens of dozens of 3G phones and disseminate around the hostelries and eateries in Ballsbridge.
Three-one to Armenia against Slovakia? Happy days, but it wasn’t long before the realisation dawned that the sprinkling of Russian supporters and Advocaat’s team would be harbouring those exact same thoughts.
What would events in the Republican Stadium mean for the Aviva’s first truly ‘competitive’ soccer match? Would Dick Advocaat settle for the draw if the final quarter or so dawned with parity still on the scoreboard?
We would never know.
Briefly, very briefly, it looked like Ireland might breach that checkpoint in even better shape than that thanks to an early flurry of activity that delivered an effort off the crossbar, a shout for a penalty and a shot across the Russian line.
Paul Green was breaking play up like a teacher would a pre-school scuffle and Advocaat was whistling furiously through his fingers but Alexander Kerzhakov struck three minutes later and that was that.
Or so it seemed.
A night of conflicting emotions, then, but one that shouldn’t scupper all thoughts of a summer spent traversing Poland and the Ukraine in 2012 because Russia are very much the exception and not the rule in international football these days.
That result in Yerevan only confirmed the suspicion that Slovakia are a side of Ordinary Joe’s – just like us – and qualification is by no means beyond this group of players. Limited though they may be.
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