By Brendan O’Brien, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 1 Scotland 1
The carousel has a few more circuits to run before the music stops, but Ireland’s Euro 2016 ride is all but over with four qualifying games still to go after this 1-1 draw with Scotland that leaves them needing an incredulous string of results to make it to France.
With Poland beating Georgia at home, Martin O’Neill’s side now finds itself still rooted in fourth and two points behind the Scots who remain most likely to take the third spot - behind the Poles and Germany - and the fig leaf of a play-off place that will come with that.
The result will doubtless see questions raised about the future of Martin O’Neill as manager, though the focus for the management team and players - after a long summer stewing over their fate – will be to take six points against Gibraltar and Georgia in the autumn.
A trip to Poland and a home game against Germany wrap up the group. Unfortunately.
Both managers sprung surprises with their selections. O’Neill sidestepped all the debate as to whether a grieving Robbie Keane or Shane Long would start by asking Daryl Murphy to lead his attack after a season banging in the goals for Ipswich Town in the Championship.
Jeff Hendrick joined James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan and Jonathan Walters in midfield. Wes Hoolahan linked both departments, though he nominally started wide on the left, which meant no place for Aiden McGeady – who was an injury doubt - or James McClean.
The back four and Shay Given in goal were as expected.
Gordon Strachan opted for Craig Forsyth at left-back and Matt Richie wide right in midfield for a game that was backed by what was possibly the most electrifying atmosphere seen at the new Lansdowne Road for a football match since the rebuild.
Ireland started brightly, the sight of McCarthy pushing up to support the front man a welcome one given previous criticisms of him and, though Ireland seemed to suffer for a lack of width at times, they played better football than for the most of the campaign to that point.
Scotland looked nervous, a number of poor touches from defenders allowing Ireland to build the pressure, but the visitors reached the half-hour mark without shedding blood and with Steven Naismith and Steven Fletcher having pops at Given’s domain.
A Glenn Whelan effort from distance was Ireland’s only real attempt to that point though just as worrying was the fact that the Stoke City man and McCarthy had already picked up yellow cards with the latter having shown too much aggression on two occasions.
In truth, McCarthy could well have been sent off by then, either for two yellows or a straight red having left his elbow skyward to connect with Russell Martin’s face, but Ireland’s really lucky break was still to come.
With seven minutes until half-time Robbie Brady sent in one of his superb setpieces, this time from a corner. Murphy met it with a header that deflected off an offside Walters who proceeded to stick in the rebound after David Marshall parried.
Half-time brought with it a jubilant roar from the home fans, but Scotland rewrote the narrative with less than a minute of the second period played when Shaun Maloney’s shot was deflected off John O’Shea before nestling into the bottom corner of Given’s net.
It was the start of a poor third quarter for Ireland who lost their momentum and sense of purpose. The only spark came from Hoolahan who sent Murphy through after 49 minutes only for the striker to strike weakly off the goalkeeper’s legs.
O’Neill’s side clearly needed an injection of new blood and it came rather belatedly with James McClean’s introduction for Whelan with just over 22 minutes to play as the manager. This was the last throw of the dice if the campaign was to be rescued.
The tide had finally began to turn towards a late home siege by the time Keane, surprisingly, replaced the constantly creative Hoolahan 73 minutes in, but efforts from Murphy and the LA Galaxy striker failed to do much to discomfit Strachan’s side.
Ireland huffed and puffed to the finish, but it wasn’t to be.
France will have to get by without us this time next year.
Ireland: S Given, S Coleman, M Wilson, J O’Shea, G Whelan, J McCarthy, J Hendrick, J Walters, R Brady, W Hoolahan, D Murphy. Subs: J McClean for Whelan (68); R Keane for Hoolahan (73); S Long for Murphy (80).
Scotland: D Marshall, A Hutton, C Forsyth, R Martin, C Mulgrew, S Maloney, J Morrison, S Brown, S Fletcher, S Naismith, M Ritchie. Subs: I Anya for Ritchie (HT); J McArthur for Brown (85); C Berra for Naismith (92).
Referee: N Rizzoli (Italy).