Blood and thunder not nearly enough as craft sadly lacking

Steven Whittaker, Scotland, in action against James McClean, Republic of Ireland. Picture; Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

All sound and fury, no pause for thought — and certainly none of the craft that Shaun Maloney and Scotland displayed.

Gordon Strachan said that last night’s match would be like a “British cup tie”, but his team ultimately won it with the type of moment that would have illuminated any pitch in the world. That a match with so much blunt force was settled by a moment of brilliant finesse was not the only irony to Ireland’s defeat.

Before the game, all the focus had been on Aiden McGeady, but it was another former Celtic flair player with an Irish-sounding name that was ultimately worthy of such attention.

Yet, while McGeady regularly watched the ball fly over his head and often found himself on the fringes of the game, Scotland created the context that allowed Maloney to show his class.

While it is obviously far too early to be concerned, and the group remains so tight thanks to some genuine Irish moments of quality, that has always been the big worry with the Martin O’Neill regime.

His overall approach can be a little reductive, and he is quicker than many other modern managers to go negative. He was certainly more inclined to do that here than Gordon Strachan. While the defining traits of this game were blood, thunder and the ball being pummelled into the air, it is difficult not to say that Scotland are a touch more sophisticated than Ireland.

That difference may only be slight, but it could be decisive in this group, and was certainly telling on the night.

Take the way first half progressed. Once the two teams had exchanged enough abrasive challenges, Scotland actually started to outmanoeuvre Ireland.

Jeff Hendrick and Darron Gibson badly struggled against Scotland’s three-man central midfield, and Strachan’s side fashioned a fair few of their chances out of that. It led to the best chance of the game before the actual goal, Steven Fletcher’s attempted flick at a Steven Whittaker cross.

The real worry here is that, by now, everyone knows it is to almost cede a game to play a two-man midfield in international football. It was the type of thing that Giovanni Trapattoni was regularly and justifiably criticised for, and O’Neill should not be spared questioning.

It was perhaps an admission that he got it wrong that Shane Long was taken off for Robbie Brady, but that quickly backfired as Scotland claimed their goal within minutes. Suddenly Ireland had to re-adjust again. They were found wanting, not enough creativity to come back into it.

The most galling part is that it has usually been sides of a similar level like Russia and Croatia that have exposed this flaw, and brutally shown Ireland the folly of such an approach. It is not quite expected from one of your closest neighbours, who are usually deemed to be close to you in style as well as quality.

That was not the case. Scotland eventually rose above the storm of this game just enough. It may well result in them rising above O’Neill’s side by the end of this campaign.

That is the deeper consequence of this match, and the mistake in setting up for a draw.

A group this delicately poised is ultimately going to come down to where sides pick up their bonus points. Poland surprisingly got three against the world champions Germany, Ireland managed one. That put both ahead.

Here, Scotland shot back in the best way possible. An anticipated draw was turned into a victory, and means Ireland are going to have to show much more initiative in the return game.

O’Neill must show a little more craft and nuance. His old-fashioned mid-2000 attributes of solely organisation and energy are no longer enough.

That was made all too clear on the wings. James McClean showed plenty of industry but absolutely no innovation.

McGeady was basically forced to the fringes of the game.

Maloney, however, settled it.

He showed the sole moment of quality.

A fragile group has been aggressively blown wide open, albeit thanks to the most inspired of moments.

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