After turning over a rock, Ireland are suddenly in less of a hard place.
Matches like this one against Gibraltar are always difficult to get excited by and the inevitability of a win makes them feel utterly inconsequential, but this could yet be one of the most meaningful nights in the group — and one that keeps Irish enthusiasm very much alive.
Because, as Germany beat Poland by two and a previously high-flying Scotland unexpectedly slipped up away to Georgia, Ireland did their part by defeating the minnows and perhaps generated a new momentum that could yet mean the closing stages of this group are very different to what has gone before.
That could be the best thing about this match because, beyond the three points that put Martin O’Neill’s side back in third in the group, the display otherwise conformed to the previous pattern of Irish performances.
The side started with a sense of business and real life to their play, only for that to again fall away into something more shapeless. Yet, although there are still some collective concerns about the overall performance, there were again individual elements within that which were hugely pleasing.
In fact, those individual elements almost provide a step-by-step guide to how the game was won 4-0.
The first was Robbie Brady’s ongoing growth in his new role at left-back. O’Neill has solved a real problem for the team by getting the 23-year-old to perform there, even if the nature of the opposition meant he was doing things more in keeping with his usual position at left wing. Brady was getting on the ball more than anyone else in the opening stages, whipping in crosses, but also delivering some brilliant set-pieces.
That was Ireland’s main source of attack early on but also where some of their play stalled. By the 20th minute, O’Neill’s side began to lose their rhythm in a way that has become a little too routine under the former Celtic manager. It often seems as if the midfield isn’t entirely synced up, and we keep coming back to the failure of the team to properly keep the ball and actually do something with it.
If Brady wasn’t crossing, Wes Hoolahan was the only player trying to do anything creative, and it is still as if Glenn Whelan and — especially — James McCarthy are a bit too reticent. It’s also still difficult to say whether that is down to the personnel or the way the manager sets them up.
At the least, a reprieve — and further encouragement — came from Brady’s full-back partner on the other side of the pitch. Cyrus Christie stormed down the right and scored his first international goal in his first competitive match.
It can do wonders for his own confidence, and certainly ensured Ireland would suffer from no more nerves. One goal in such games is basically enough to ensure a procession.
That is effectively what the game became and, other than the fact the performance still fits that stuttering pattern from previous games, it would be difficult to be too critical of Ireland in that context.
From there, it was almost as if the goals came from isolated pieces of play, rather than proving a natural consequence of Ireland overwhelming Gibraltar. Of course, that makes no difference to Robbie Keane, and it often proves his best use — snatching goals out of nothing.
Jon Walters did most of the work at the start of the second half with a run down the left, but Keane was still there to hit his 66th international goal, before claiming his 67th through a penalty.
Jeff Hendrick’s excellent cross for Shane Long’s goal was also encouraging, since his odd positioning seemed to congest the midfield when Ireland could have done with a bit more width.
Again, it was an isolated moment in an inconsistent display.
But at least the pattern of the group has been broken. The hope is the confidence derived from new opportunity can also break the pattern of the performance level.
This hiding to nothing could yet mean something.
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