Russians make their point

Bill George

The skill factor was the critical arbiter and it was so positively weighted in Russia's favour that even the most enthusiastic of Ireland's supporters in an attendance of 36,000 were forced to acknowledge that the result was right.

Russia deserved their point and Ireland battled with such honesty and persistence in face of adversity that it would have been an unacceptable cruelty had they lost the game.

The result means that Ireland's prospects of processing their application for membership of the exclusive club contesting the finals in Portugal hang tenuously.

It is certain that nothing short of a win in their final match in Switzerland will be of any value in this regard and their task was made more difficult by the yellow card booking that the excellent Kenny Cunningham picked up late in the game. It was his second of the competition and will keep him out of the final match.

It is easy to compile a substantial list of extenuating circumstances that contrived to depress the level of Ireland's football and contributed to a number of individual performances that fell short of the norm in this anti-climax. Most obvious was the fact that several players who have not been fully active at club level were clearly off the pace. Colin Healy, Lee Carsley, Clinton Morrison came into this category. Others, like Stephen Carr and Steven Reid were not in form.

An injury to John O'Shea that forced his departure after just 26 minutes was clearly disruptive. Ian Harte came in to play splendidly in his place and add further weight to the argument for inclusion that he posted with his excellent performance against Australia a couple of weeks ago.

O'Shea was an intrinsic element of Ireland's set-piece play in training and was clearly ear-marked for a major role in this regard. The goal he headed against Australia was rehearsed and it was planned to facilitate a repeat of that by using him in tandem with Morrison at corner-kicks and frees.

His loss in this regard was a disappointment as was Ireland's inability to match the Russians in the physical contest. Invariably the opening 20 minutes of a match are critical in this regard as teams illustrate the depth of their resolve, the intensity of their desire. There is no suggestion here that Ireland were anything other than fully geared to playing to their limits, but it is a fact that Russia grabbed the initiative at the beginning of the match.

They did so through good football and superb organisation. They operated with a lone centre-forward, the powerful and impressive Bulykin, and with five players in midfield they ensured the area in front of their penalty box was as crowded as a school excursion.

Their individual skill, confidence in possession, and accurate passing ensured they controlled the ball in that critical opening quarter. It is also a fact that they were prepared to hit Ireland physically whenever the opportunity presented itself.

It was abundantly clear that Russia were happy to put Damien Duff to ground whenever they could. It was significant also that players took it in their turns to concede the frees with Kevin Kilbane as much a target later in the game as Duff was throughout.

Four Russians were shown yellow cards two for fouling Kilbane, one for tripping Duff and the fourth for fouling O'Shea. Was it significant that Gusev's foul on O'Shea occurred a mere two minutes after the full-back had been off for treatment on a jarred knee? Were Russia that cynical?

Perhaps to think in those terms is to be guilty of a local bias. But consider also the fact that Shay Given was injured when he was knocked off balance by Bulykin while high in the air as early as the 10th minute. A similar challenge by Bulykin helped produce Russia's equalising goal in the 43rd minute. Given was so impeded when he attempted a punched clearance that Ignashevich was able to bundle in the rebound from 15 yards, via Breen's outstretched arm. Russia's goalkeeper, Ovchinnikov, never faced this type of raw challenge.

Ireland's is a lightweight team and they ran up against opponents so adept at using their bodies to protect the ball that Ireland spent a lot of time chasing possession. The result was that Ireland could not find the tempo they needed to pressurise Russia and there was no fluidity to their attacking play. Their football was fragmented.

The lack of a creative passer in the critical midfield area that has regularly been highlighted in these columns, was obvious as Russia pulled ten players behind the ball whenever they surrendered possession. Healy has looked the most promising in this regard but on this day he was betrayed by a lack of match practice.

It was left to Kilbane and Duff to trouble Russia's defence and both played superbly. This was Kilbane's finest game in an Irish shirt and confirmation of his remarkable athletic prowess was reflected in his powerful play in the closing quarter.

Duff showed all of his considerable elusiveness in another delightful demonstration of his considerable courage and subtle skill. The lack of impact from Ireland on the right-hand side of the pitch meant that Ireland's attacking options were limited to this pair and it was expecting too much for them to penetrate Russia's layered defence.

It was significant that Duff's goal should have arrived in the 35th minute, just two minutes after Russia had made a substitution. They introduced a striker for a midfield player and Duff immediately rejoiced in the little extra room in midfield by taking the ball twice past Mostovoi before squeezing off a left-foot shot from 30 yards that was deflected by Onopko beyond the goalkeeper.

To suggest Ireland missed Robbie Keane is merely to emphasise the obvious. Now they must wait to see if Switzerland will win the automatic qualifying spot in Moscow on Wednesday. Either way they will be hoping that everybody will be sharper and more match-hardened when they travel to Switzerland on October 11.

IRELAND (4-4-2): Given; Carr, Breen, Cunningham, O'Shea (Harte 26); Carsley (Reid 46), Healy, Holland, Kilbane; Morrison (Doherty 73), Duff.

RUSSIA (4-5-1): Ovchinnikov; Evseev, Ignashevich, Onopko, Sennikov; Gusev, Esipov (Kerzhakov 33), Smertin, Mostovoi, Alenichev (Aldonine 39); Bulykin.

Referee: Lubos Michel (Slovakia).

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