Long road remains to France ’16

Euro 2016 Qualifier Group D

Long road remains to France ’16

A late equaliser lifted the mood, but what amounts to a wounding blow to Ireland’s Euro ambitions means that nothing less than three points here against Scotland in June will suffice if Martin O’Neill’s team are to retain a chance of even slipping into France through the back door of a third-place play-off.

As things stand, the Irish find themselves adrift in fourth place in Group D, not so much in the chasing pack as chasing the pack.

Yes, there was a pulsating end to the game, and another one of those late Irish goals in this group that, all things considered, was probably the least the home side’s lung-bursting effort in the second half deserved.

But, for all the drama, the problem was that this game was being played in Dublin, not Gelsenkirchen — and a point salvaged in the Aviva meant the result was ultimately one for group leaders Poland, not group strugglers Ireland, to savour.

Martin O’Neill had always maintained that the big games at home would shape Ireland’s qualification destiny and, accordingly, he had been bold in his selection, making no less than seven changes from the team which had started in the 1-0 defeat in Scotland.

The 4-2-3-1 formation offered a striking mixture of the old and the new, veterans Shay Given and Robbie Keane the furthest back and furthest forward, Robbie Brady coming in at left-back and, refreshingly, Wes Hoolahan — a player around a long time but whose presence in a game of this magnitude still had the whiff of novelty about it — on from the first whistle.

But as with all brave moves, O’Neill’s selection was not without potential risk, especially on the left side where Aiden McGeady playing in front of Brady offered plenty of attacking threat but, the worry was, at the expense of defensive solidity.

And so it would prove for the Hull man, in particular, Brady for the most part having a night to forget as a winger-turned-full-back, a qualifier against Poland proving a very different proposition to a friendly against the USA.

It was tough on David Forde to have to sit out this one but Shay Given’s 127th cap and first competitive game for his country since the Euro 2012 finals was well received by the fans, the announcement of his name on the team sheet drawing the first big home ovation of a noisy, high-octane night.

And, of course, there was a return too for another veteran, although Robbie Keane’s absence from the first 11 in a competitive game had lasted only for the 78 minutes he’d been confined to the bench in Glasgow.

But it’s safe to say that neither of the old boys will be making this game a late addition to their career highlights showreel.

The game began at a high tempo, Seamus Coleman’s determined run up the line from his very first touch seeming like a statement of intent, although when he lost possession near the opposing end-line there followed immediate evidence of Poland’s threat on the counter-attack, as they needed no second invitation to sweep up field.

Against the backdrop of a crackling atmosphere, there was certainly nothing cagey about the opening exchanges, Ireland’s first effort on goal — a scuffed Wes Hoolahan shot — coming in the 10th minute, but it was the Poles who were generally making better use of their possession, albeit without initially troubling Shay Given’s goal.

Hoolahan was doing his best to get on the ball and spread the play, but not everyone in green was on the same wavelength, Brady and McGeady among the chief culprits in handing control over to the opposition in the opening phase.

And, in the 26th minute, it was Brady’s basic error which virtually handed Poland the lead, Slawomir Peszko profiting from the defensive self-destruction down in the left-full position, to drive into the box and beat Given from an angle.

Shell-shocked Ireland struggled to respond and even when Hoolahan slipped in Coleman, the overlapping full-back couldn’t keep control of the ball.

The onus was now clearly on the home side to regain the initiative and the opposition were happy to stand off for spells but, with James McCarthy having little or no impact on the game in the first half, it was still the Poles who were winning almost all the physical battles, as well as passing and moving with much more purpose and precision.

The closest Ireland came to levelling the score in the first 45 was just before half-time when McGeady finally dipped productively into his bag of tricks in the box but, having created the space for himself in box, then saw an ambitious chip drift wide of the far post.

O’Neill’s motivational skills would have been put to a real test in the dressing room and, straight from the resumption of play, there were signs that Ireland were determined to take the game to Poland — as if they had any other choice, mind — Brady’s cross getting a Kamil Glik deflection that left Fabianski watching on helplessly as the far post came to his rescue.

Just past the hour mark, Wilson headed straight at Fabianski from a Brady corner as the Irish, roared on by the crowd, continued to apply waves of pressure.

The Poles did their best — and, sometimes, their worst — to take the sting out of proceedings by running down the clock at every opportunity, while fussy Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson, who certainly couldn’t be accused of being a ‘homer’, frequently attracted the wrath of the Aviva support as well as the Irish bench.

With a goal paramount and fresh legs required, logic suggested Shane Long should come on for Walters or Keane, but O’Neill’s first change, in the 67th minute, was to send in James McClean for McGeady.

And, full-blooded as ever, the Wigan man’s first significant contribution almost produced the equaliser, his deep cross to the far post being met by a Keane header which Fabianski turned against the woodwork.

Such was the urgency in Ireland’s play, that Coleman and Brady were now practically operating as wide front men but still, there was nothing to show for the one-way traffic, the Everton full-back wasting the clearest chance thus far by blasting wide in the 82nd minute, after Keane had stepped out of the way.

That was the signal for Long to finally arrive on the pitch, in place of Whelan, as O’Neill threw yet another attacker to the mix. And the Southampton man duly delivered, in the first minute of injury time, Hoolahan heading a Brady corner back into the six-yard box for Long to finish from close range.

The crowd responded to with a nostalgic blast of ‘Ole, ole’ but you sensed it was born more out of relief than real celebration. Full of fire but short of ice, the Irish wait for that big home win goes on and on.

Right now, France is looking a very long way off too.

Subs for Ireland: McClean for McGeady (67); Long for Whelan (81)

Subs for Poland: Mila for Milik (82); Kucharczyk for Peszko (86).

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