Poland 0 Republic of Ireland 0
At long last, a happier footballing memory for the Irish to take away from Poznan.
Lovely place, lovely people and, as all those tricolours on display in the windows of the shops and pubs in the old town confirmed again, there’s always an especially warm welcome for the Irish, even when they come as a trickle rather than a torrent. Indeed, in a wonderful gesture, the home crowd applauded all the way through the visitors’ anthem just before kick off last night.
As footballing hosts, however, the place has not always tended to be so gracious a host to the green.
But, after Ireland shed a two-goal lead in Poznan in a 1991 European Championship qualifier and then, as you might just remember, shipped five goals over two games at the same venue in Euro 2012 here, finally, there was a night of modest redemption. Martin O’Neill’s Ireland made it a textbook start for the new manager with a hard-fought draw on the road to build on the opening game victory at home to Latvia.
Of course, this was still only a friendly fixture — though the efforts of the two sides and the atmosphere generated by a healthy crowd of 31,094 made it seem much more competitive — and O’Neill, more than most, will be acutely conscious that the real tests still lie some distance into the future. But as an opening statement of intent, the contrasting strengths of these back-to-back performances offer real grounds for optimism. The only pity, of course, is that there won’t be any points at stake until next September.
Even on a night when both managers put the emphasis firmly on experimentation, Poland on their home turf were always going to be more of a handful for Ireland than a desperately limited Latvian side.
O’Neill certainly wasn’t kidding when he’d said he would rotate his charges over his first two games. Compared to Giovanni Trapattoni’s predictability, the new man’s team selection for his first away game bordered on the revolutionary.
Having left his back four intact for the whole of the 90 minutes against Latvia, two promptly made way at the start last night, with Marc Wilson and Stephen Ward retaining their places while Stephen Kelly and Sean St Ledger — the latter having played just two club games this season — came in for Seamus Coleman and John O’Shea respectively.
The waves of change rippled up the pitch, with Jon Walters — named captain for the night — on the right side of midfield and Paul Green replacing Glenn Whelan in the middle. With Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Keane also making way, the theoretical cutting edge was supplied by Anthony Stokes and Shane Long. In short, only four players — Ward, Wilson, McGeady and McCarthy — were retained from the starting 11 against Latvia.
Adam Nawelka too made seven changes from the Polish team which lost his opening game as manager 0-2 to Latvia last week but, inevitably hitman and skipper Robert Lewandowski — back on his old Lech Poznan stomping ground — retained his place.
A very poor, heavily sanded playing surface — which had confounded even Roy Keane with a bad bobble during the warm-up — did no favours for either side but the worry was that the Irish would be especially hamstrung by a creative deficit in the absence of Hoolahan and Coleman.
Certainly, the visitors were not being given anything like the time and space afforded them by the conservative Latvians, resulting in a few old style long balls being pitched forward in search of the head of Shane Long.
Encouragingly, however, Ireland pressing high up the pitch was again in evidence from the off, with Aiden McGeady once more relishing the freedom to concentrate on going forward rather than back. When Ireland were under pressure, it was almost entirely self-inflicted, James McCarthy having to execute a crunching rescue tackle after Marc Wilson, not for the only time, was too casual in possession.
Yet, it was still a full 15 minutes into the game before David Forde even got a feel of the ball, after which Ireland really should have taken the lead in the 21st minute. In a near mirror image of the set-piece routine which had seen Robbie Keane score the first goal against Latvia, a McGeady corner was headed on by Jon Walters but, this time, the unmarked Stephen Kelly showed more of a defender’s instinct in front of goal, heading the ball down into the ground and over the bar.
The unfortunate St Ledger’s rare outing — his first since August — was ended on the half-hour mark, injury forcing his withdrawal and replacement by O’Shea. O’Shea then almost immediately got himself a yellow card for deliberate handball, after the always threatening Lewandowski flicked the ball over the substitute’s head with the Irish rearguard dangerously exposed.
Poland had their best spell approaching the break but Ireland, playing with spirited physicality and defending as a unit, held firm, with Paul Green in particular covering the ground selflessly to make important interventions and disrupt the opposition’s fluid movement.
Minutes after the restart, Stephen Kelly, having initially given the ball away, atoned for his mistake with a precise retrieving tackle to end a weaving Jakub Blaszczykowski into the Irish box.
Lewandowski made way on the hour mark and then Martin O’Neill rang the changes, James McClean coming on for Aiden McGeady and Alex Pearce — the only unused squad member up until then — replacing James McCarthy, with Marc Wilson pushing up into midfield. Kevin Doyle followed soon after for Stokes.
The alterations served to make proceedings a bit more ragged but the game also opened up with half-chances materialising at either end.
With the Polish crowd getting behind their team and the players in red and white desperate to respond, Ireland were forced back on their heels but the heroic Green seemed to be here, there and everywhere, helping to stem the tide.
In the 72nd minute, Wes Hoolahan came on for Shane Long and, a short while later, Glenn Whelan replaced Wilson. After that, it was all about keeping a clean sheet for the game’s final 15 minutes — plus an excessive add-on for a friendly of six minutes of injury time — which Ireland did with admirable fortitude, giving Martin O’Neill plenty to be satisfied about at the end of his fortnight in charge.
Subs for Ireland: O’Shea for St Ledger (33), Pearce for McCarthy (62), McClean for McGeady (62), Doyle for Stokes (68), Hoolahan for Long (73), Whelan for Wilson (76).
Subs for Poland: Jodlowiec for Maczynski (59), Teodorczyk for Lewandowski (59), Olkowski for Cwielong (81), Brzyski for Sobota (81), Robak for Blaszczykowski (89).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved