Boys in Green still alive and kicking after half-time reboot

They frustrate and they disappoint. They can display all the get up and go of a moody teenager, but this Republic of Ireland side has at least developed a handy knack of making you smile just when you have all but despaired of them.

They bought another ‘last chance’ last night.

You know you shouldn’t but, hey, it’s love.

Late goals against Georgia in Tbilisi and Germany in Gelsenkirchen handed Martin O’Neill’s side a jump start to Group D that their performances scarcely deserved and Shane Long’s late equaliser against Poland last March amounted to another timely flutter of the eyes.

And they did it again last night.

The first half was as awful a 45 minutes as any delivered by the Boys in Green in modern times. Listless, rudderless and at times clueless, it made you wonder not why the stadium was so empty but why so many had turned up.

News from Glasgow where Scotland were hanging on to Germany by their fingertips seemed nothing more than an irrelevant distraction at that point, but then Ireland went and discovered themselves in the dressing room at half-time.

Belated though it was, they finally played like a side that had a major championships still to play for and Georgia’s goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili was still batting away pots on his patch when the clock ticked into injury-time.

Seamus Coleman, Glenn Whelan, Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy had all delivered efforts of various speeds and standards at the Georgian goal in the 20 minutes after the restart. The team played with energy and purpose: both of them basics, but their appearance was revelatory here.

Sure enough, it delivered the deserved reward, with Hendrick skipping past three defenders down the left after 69 minutes and crossing to the near post where Jonathan Walters bundled home impressively enough, given his man was man-handling him like a cranky bouncer at the time.

Shane Long could have sewn it up eight minutes later.

The Southampton striker’s energy was evident on his introduction for Robbie Keane at half-time, but his finishing has always been his Achilles heel and he failed to get any part of his foot to an inviting James McClean cross.

And so the nerves grew taut. A home crowd all too familiar with the pain of momentum and leads lost braced for an edgy closing spell, but Georgia proved unable or unwilling to rouse themselves for a point that would ultimately mean little to them.

Their limitations were a godsend.

The influence of Kakhaber Tskhadze, who took over from Temuri Ketsbaia on Christmas Day last year, has been stitched through the team this year with a battling 2-0 loss in Germany and a 4-0 loss to Poland that was disfigured by a late, late three-minute Robert Lewandowski hat-trick.

And then they saw off the Scots.

O’Neill, in programme notes written prior to events in Faro and Tbilisi last Friday, expressed the hope that people would be reading his by-then outdated thoughts in a positive state of mind, but he still made sure to add a warning as to last night’s opposition.

“By their own standards, our opponents will be somewhat disappointed with their progress through the group,” he wrote, “but there is a new energy and determination about them recently. They have changed their coach and seem to have re-found (sic) their spirit.”

Little could he have known how the group table would look come yesterday, but as the first half wore on the thought dawned that maybe Georgia were not the only side that could benefit from a new voice.

Failure to pursue the renewed scent offered by Georgia’s surprise defeat of the Scots would surely have spelled the end for O’Neill’s tenure and it may still dribble away into an abyss of disappointment given games against Germany at home and Poland away have yet to be approached.

There will be no Glenn Whelan against the world champions. Derided for much of his Ireland career, he was superb last night. McClean too will be unavailable, like Whelan due to a suspension picked up here for what was a silly booking.

Questions remain over tactics and individual players and about the dead-eyed pace at which they all too often play the game, but they are still alive and for now that is enough.


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