A campaign which started with a bang is chugging along at a whimper and requires something unprecedented to be retrieved.
This time two years ago in their pursuit of Scotland for a Euro play-off spot, Martin O’Neill insisted Ireland needed to beat either Germany or Poland in their remaining two games to succeed. On this occasion, the full complement of six points are required from the matches against Moldova and Wales.
Given their problems in putting the ball in the net, identifying the goalscoring supply in any rescue plan — especially the visit to Cardiff on October 9 — is difficult. O’Neill’s Ireland have scored just twice in their last four qualifiers and last night’s penalty area action was more of a frantic than craft variety.
Shane Long and Jonathan Walters looked every bit the peripheral strikers they currently are at club level, short of sharpness and in need of a goal to lift confidence. The Tipperary man, in particular, looked well off the pace — understandable for someone started twice in the space of four days.
In need of freshness and energy on the back of Saturday’s limp display in Georgia, O’Neill did the right thing by ditching his midfielders for more adventure. David Meyler is more known for his industrious traits and that he was named man-of-the-match said much for how he helped thwart the influence of Nemanja Matic.
The Corkman has never let O’Neill down in his time of need, most evidently on away days in Germany and Austria when precious points were earned in the early stages of the Derryman’s two campaigns at the helm. This was his opportunity to shine before a home crowd and he delivered in spades, sticking to his job with diligence before fatigue contributed to him being substituted with 10 minutes remaining.
One moment eight minutes before the break awoke a crowd badly in need of cajoling.
Nipping the ball away from the dangerous Filip Kostic towards his the corner flag in his own half, he managed not only to keep the ball in play but pivoted and managed to nutmeg the dispossessed Serb.
A player known for his guile showed there’s a degree of skill in there too, something the man who recruited him to Sunderland, fellow Corkman Roy Keane, would have proud of.
On the negative side, Serbia didn’t even have to hit their stride to inflict a first competitive home defeat on O’Neill, their trademark wide play was well managed by Ireland until Aleksander Kolarov arrived unmarked from the left to execute the only goal. Aside from that moment, they showed nothing of the level displayed in the two duels with Wales and victory over Austria.
Ultimately, despite the late rally which almost nicked a point to delay Serbia’s march towards group victory, it was last weekend’s slip-up in Georgia that leaves Ireland needing the same nation to do a similar job on the Welsh next month.
O’Neill likes to talk up the calibre of Georgia, highlighting their strength as the worst possible draw of the lowest seeded nations in the World Cup draw of 14 months ago. While he has a point, evidenced by them also holding Austria to a draw in Vienna last night, there’s no reference to the luck in being drawn in the same pool as Moldova.
From their fifth pot could have been Cyprus, Finland, Armenia or Lithuania – nations much stronger and capable of taking more than the two points Moldova have so far in the campaign.
The notion of Ireland struggling against the pool’s basement side next time doesn’t bear thinking about but another frustrating night is not what the Irish fans want after a dreadful run in Dublin.
After toiling past Georgia in their first game, successive draws against Wales and Austria were followed by last night’s reverse.
Clearly, Ireland’s reputation for developing a fortress didn’t build upon the victories over Germany and Bosnia Herzegovina in late 2015. Events in the last week mean that bygone period could be reflected on as O’Neill’s highpoint in the job.