By no stretch of the imagination did this latest and last setback of 2012 deserve comparison with the savage mauling here by Germany or the series of crushing defeats in Poland in the summer, but it was still a disappointment that an Irish performance which was not without its merits failed to produce at least the one goal which the small attendance craved and which the side’s overall display probably deserved.
But there is still no escaping the fact that two home losses on the trot is not the way the under-fire Trapattoni would have wanted to end the year, however fantastic his assistant Marco Tardelli seems to think it has otherwise been. However, the cloud last night was not without a silver lining, especially in the inspirational display of Seamus Coleman who was a real driving force for the home side and, clearly, a player who cannot be overlooked again in the World Cup qualifying campaign.
In the run-up to kick-off, an already fresh looking Irish line-up was rendered even more unfamiliar with the news that goalkeeper Keiren Westwood had been ruled out with a groin problem. That opened the door to just a fourth cap for Galwegian David Forde who, unlike Westwood at Sunderland, has been getting regular game time in England having reclaimed his place between the posts for Millwall.
With the tumbleweed blowing through large uninhabited sections of the stands, the onus was on the Irish team to generate something that might pass for atmosphere in the Aviva. And for 20 minutes or so they didn’t do a bad job at all.
After a strong early claim for a penalty had been turned down, Ireland proceeded to boss the opening phase, Ciaran Clark looking composed and commanding at the back and Shane Long causing problems for the Greeks at the other end with his pace. In between, the green shirts were dominating possession and stringing the passes together, a rare and welcome sight from an Irish team in recent times.
And as early as the ninth minute, they should have been ahead. Out on the right, Coleman and Long constructed a neat one-two to create space for the full-back’s cross but the unmarked Simon Cox badly mistimed his jump and could only direct a weak header wide of the target.
The Irish were especially impressive down the right flank, where Coleman and Robbie Brady were working up a good relationship but, in the absence of end product in the form of a goal, the Greeks were hardly out of the game and, before long, showed the home side how to make the most out of minimal possession.
There’d been a warning in the 22nd minute when a shot by Sotiris Ninis produced a fine diving side by Forde but there was little the ‘keeper could do six minutes later when poor defending once again cost Ireland dear.
With plenty of green shirts about, there didn’t initially appear to be any significant danger but, with his back to goal, Jose Holebas took a short pass from Georgios Samaras and shook off the attentions of John O’Shea far too easily before turning and driving a low shot inside the post.
Irish confidence has long been a fragile thing and the goal caused it to visibly drain away, the Greeks remaining on the front foot up to the break, despite one effort from Brady which stung the hands of ‘keeper Orestis Karnezis. The Irish were also forced into a change, injury causing the unfortunate Glenn Whelan to make way for Keith Andrews while, for his part, Clark was perhaps lucky to stay on the pitch after a ferocious tackle which upended and enraged the Greek goalscorer Holebas and earned the Aston Villa man a yellow card..
Cheers greeted the arrival of Wes Hoolahan, on for Brady in the second half, but the reception for Kevin Doyle was diminished by the realisation that it was Long not Cox who was going to make way, as Trapattoni, in the subsequent positional reshuffle, once again indulged his baffling preference for playing the Nottingham Forest striker out wide. As it happened, an unproductive night for Cox was ended soon enough by injury, his place then taken by Andy Keogh.
With Hoolahan playing off Doyle and showing some neat touches without ever fully imposing himself on his long-awaited return, Ireland adopted a 4-4-1-1 formation in the second period and, as at the start of the first, seemed to be denied a clear penalty early on when Doyle was held back as he threatened to pounce after Karnezis had spilled James McCarthy’s shot.
With Andrews’ crisp, first-time passing an increasingly influential component in their play, the Irish once more took a grip on the game but, despite some promising build-up work, they desperately lacked a cutting edge, as exemplified by Stephen Ward’s miscue when a deflected shot fell invitingly for the Wolves full-back in the box. James McClean, meanwhile, was promising rather more than he delivered, his final ball proving less than productive, as the Sunderland man offered more in the way of lung-bursting perspiration than defence-cracking inspiration.
Ireland might have exerted a fair amount of pressure but, in truth, the Greek defence were hardly required to do too much in the way of last-ditch defending and, barring one or two half-chances, their goalkeeper remained largely untroubled as they edged their way to the final whistle with their narrowest of leads intact.
A pity, especially for man of the match Coleman who, nutmegs and all, scarcely deserved to finish on the losing side.
Subs for Republic of Ireland: Keith Andrews for Glenn Whelan (34); Wes Hoolahan for Robbie Brady (45) Kevin Doyle for Shane Long (45) Andy Keogh for Simon Cox (60) David Meyler for James McCarthy (69)
Greece: Stefanos Nikol Athanasiadis for Georgios Samaras (45) Dimitrios Salpingdid for Konstantinos Mitroglou (45) Loukas Vyntra for Sotiris Ninis (59) Ioannis Maniatis for Vasileios Torosidis(60) Nikolao
Trapattoni was never feeling the pressure
Before last night, there was an odd build-up in the Sky Sports studio as they tried to make out this was a must-win match for Giovanni Trapattoni. That, of course, was their prerogative given that they were actively selling the fixture. In truth, though, Trapattoni had already bought himself more than enough time after the Faroes furore so this was always going to be the ultimate freebie. Duly, his team played like that. As often happens for Ireland amid the general lack of urgency in these contests, they passed the ball along the ground much more freely and frequently than in competitive affairs. The question is why there is such a stark difference as soon as there is a bit of pressure on? Other than that, though, Trapattoni didn’t feel forced to deviate too much from his general formula. Ireland started a game well, before fading off and then building again. Despite the result, it was a generally decent performance that changes nothing about the manager’s position or the team’s situation.
The manager may have been right on McClean
Trapattoni has made a few errors over the past few years. He’s also, however, got a fair few things right and one of the biggest may be with Ireland’s causes celebres. In the majority of the most controversial — Andy Reid, Stephen Ireland — he’s generally been proved correct as both of those have faded since the periods when debates around them reached fever pitch. James McClean, meanwhile, has faded badly since the excellent form that made him such a cult hero in the build-up to Euro 2012. Last night, he was given another opportunity to start a game but appeared to misplace or mishit almost every single cross. An illustrative moment came on 73 minutes when he won the ball superbly in midfield only to then blaze it over the bar from distance with a poor decision. None of this is to say that McClean should not have been given a chance during the Euros when he was on red-hot form or that Trapattoni does not have an problem with picking certain players. But, in this case, he can point to some of the winger’s decisions as vindication. On the other side of things, though, Wesley Hoolahan gave enough to illustrate he merited attention long before this match while Seamus Coleman also impressed.
John O’Shea needs to rediscover his assurance
Coleman’s surprising, but supreme, nutmeg from a full-back position brought back pleasing memories of the time John O’Shea did the same to Luis Figo in a Champions League. It also, however, put into context the type of career the Sunderland centre-half has had. In short, O’Shea has never been so assured as he was in that breakthrough 2002-03 season at Manchester United. He’s always had that disturbing tendency to momentarily zone out, as we saw in Euro 2012 and for Loint Holevas’s goal last night. Likewise, there was the manner in which Marouane Fellaini embarrassed him with a simple flick on Saturday. With the international defence going through something of a transition and leaders like Richard Dunne closer to the end of their careers, it’s essential that Ireland have a much sharper O’Shea, especially if he is to become a senior partner in central defence.