“There seems to be a feeling nobody totally understands what it’s about,” admitted Martin O’Neill ahead of this Nations League tie with Wales in Cardiff.
By the time the 90 minutes was done and dusted here, the Republic boss had been left in a similar state of confusion as his troubled team were hammered 4-1.
O’Neill scratched his head on the Cardiff City Stadium touchline as Ryan Giggs’ men ran riot and while this disastrous result is a million miles away from the standard he demands, the 66-year-old will surely reflect in time that this was a much better test for his team on the whole than the drab draws which usually characterise the international break at this time of year.
O’Neill should rightly fume at the paucity of Ireland’s display, but the comprehensive reversal showed more about the scale of the problems facing him right now rather than raising any question marks over whether the Nations League deserves a place in the football calendar.
The Republic manager’s pre-match honesty was to be commended and in truth, it echoed the view of many journalists, other players and managers, and supporters alike.When asked about the tournament, England defender Harry Maguire also revealed: “It is confusing, but we are trying to get our heads round it.”
The muddled thinking was understandable, but this game showed Celtic rivalry needs no stoking, whatever the competition. Ireland were brushed aside in facile fashion and their fans waking up this morning won’t have fond memories of the encounter. Ultimately, the result is everything to supporters, but by the same token this game showed a new, competitive tournament has much to offer.
Wales goals from Tom Lawrence, Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Connor Roberts certainly leaves O’Neill with plenty of questions to answer, but the vibrant nature of this encounter would have had UEFA chiefs – who want more competitive action rather than meaningless friendlies – purring. Ireland were as poor as Wales were outstanding, but a bore-fest this was not.
For that, football as a whole is for the better.
The last meeting between these two sides in the Welsh capital – a crunch winner-takes-all World Cup qualifier – had seen Ireland claim a vital 1-0 victory which ended Wales’ dreams of Russia.
That encounter had been played out in front of a capacity crowd. This was slightly different, certainly in terms Ireland’s travelling support which didn’t even fill half of the away end.
The issues surrounding O’Neill’s missing key men Harry Arter and Declan Rice and the former’s difficult relationship with assistant Roy Keane were possible reasons, and their absence certainly seemed to play a part in Ireland’s woeful first-half .
Whether or not a lack of experience played a part in the visiting ranks will be for O’Neill to answer, but backed by a wall of red, Wales started like an express train to go to the break 3-0 to the good.
Ireland – it must be said – were awful, but some of the football played by their opponents was enterprising and quite frankly, a joy to watch. Their fluid 4-3-3 formation worked like a dream.
Giggs’ forward trio of David Brooks, Lawrence and Bale was a fluid, attacking menace Ireland simply couldn’t deal with
and they thrilled the majority of those watching on.
O’Neill wouldn’t have been one of those with his defence at sixes and sevens.
Wales were sublime, Ireland chasing shadows as Chelsea’s teenage tyro Ethan Ampadu pulled the strings in midfield, Bale stretched the away defence up top, and Brooks and Lawrence caused carnage from wide areas.
While the second half was a bit of a procession, more encounters like this – ideally with a different result from an Irish perspective – will only enhance the international calendar.
The Nations League is here to stay and while there were doubts before this match over its importance, an attendance of 25,657 was clear proof it will have its supporters, too.