Between the tame nature of the opposition last night, the even more tepid atmosphere in a largely deserted stadium and the fact that Martin O’Neill began with something close to an Irish B team, it was hard to imagine an occasion further removed from the full house and heat and hostility which the Irish can expect when they open their European Championship account in Tbilisi on Sunday.
The unfamiliar nature of the Irish starting 11 – David Meyler at right back but with full encouragement to get forward being the biggest surprise – suggested that while O’Neill was keeping one eye on the fringe players he had a much bigger one on those he wanted to keep in reserve for Sunday.
As well as the expected and welcome returns to international football of Darron Gibson and Shay Given – the latter warmly applauded by the small crowd for his first touch in an Irish match in two years – O’Neill’s selection meant starting places for skipper Richard Keogh and Alex Pearce in the heart of the defence with Stephen Ward returning at left back, Stephen Quinn alongside Gibson in central midfield, Anthony Pilkington and Robbie Brady on the flanks and, ahead of Wes Hoolahan in the target-man role, Kevin Doyle.
In the opening 15 minutes, while Gibson kept his passes safe and simple, Wes Hoolahan once again showed that he remains Ireland’s creator-in-chief. On the right wing Anthony Pilkington, ably supported by the overlapping Meyler, was also showing some flashes of inspiration but his counterpart on the opposite flank, Robbie Brady, was initially struggling with his touch.
But, making his first appearance under O’Neill following his long injury woes, the Hull man would still claim the assist for the breakthrough in the 20th minute, his left-footed corner from the right-hand side drawing a prodigious near-post leap from Kevin Doyle whose header left veteran ’keeper Ali Al Habsi flailing badly.
After his protracted struggles at club level, it was heartening to see the new Crystal Palace man claim his 13th goal for his country in 58 appearances.
Just after the increasingly influential Gibson had almost put Doyle in again with a superb through ball, Shay Given was finally called upon to get down if not quite dirty as he made his first and only save on the half-hour mark.
Irish dominance continued, with Gibson now beginning to revel in his quarter-back role at the base of the midfield, and 10 minutes before the break – after a pleasingly extended passage of Irish possession – the impressive Meyler picked up a punched clearance by Al Habsi and, from outside the box, was desperately unlucky to see his audacious long-range chip come back off the upright.
With Ireland in almost complete command but everything going more than just a little bit stale as they struggled to unlock the massed Omani defence for a second time, O’Neill chose to freshen things up just short of the hour mark by sending on a trio of players who could well have a big impact to make on Sunday. Robbie Keane and Aiden McGeady would appear certain starters while Shane Long will also be hoping to leave his mark on the qualifying campaign.
Darron Gibson’s last act before being replaced by Glenn Whelan was a heavy challenge on Eid Al Farsi, a sign the Everton man is not shy about the physical side of things after his long injury lay-off.
In a nice piece of symmetry, Alex Pearce — who scored on his debut the last time Ireland played Oman – repeated the feat as the home side finally got their belated second goal in the 80th minute. Again, it stemmed from a corner which was taken by Brady, Pearce then keeping his composure in the box to fire low through a forest of red shirts and just inside the post.
In the game’s dying moments McGeady was denied, this time by the crossbar, before the Greek referee’s whistle finally signalled the end of Ireland’s phoney war and the start of the countdown to what we can be sure will be an infinitely more high-stakes scenario in Tbilisi on Sunday.
But it’s a game James McClean will miss, after it was confirmed yesterday that injury has forced the winger to withdraw from the squad.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Given, Meyler, Keogh (c), Pearce, Ward, Pilkington, Gibson, Quinn, Brady, Hoolahan, Doyle.
OMAN: Al Habsi, S Al Mukhani, A Al Mukhani, Al Gheilani, Al Owaisi, Al Musalani, Al Muhaijri, Al Farsi, Saleh, Al Siyani, Hardan.
Subs for Ireland: Elliot for Given (45), Keane for Hoolahan (58), Long for Doyle (58), McGeady for Pilkington (58), Whelan for Gibson (70), Murphy for David Meyler (85).
Subs for Oman: Ali Al Busaidi for Hassan Al Ghailani (60) Ali Al Jabri for Ahmed Al Muhairji (60) Yaqoob Al Qasmi for Qaseem Hardan (60) Hussain Al Hadhri for Mohammed Al Siyabi (76) Mohammed Al Mashari for Raed Saleh.