Gibraltar 0 Ireland 4: It might have taken some heavy labouring by the green shirts before they got to put their feet up last night but, after finally getting to savour that Friday feeling in Faro — not least thanks to another brace from the ever reliable Robbie Keane — the urgent task for Ireland now is to avoid those Monday blues in Dublin.
Almost an hour before kick off in the Estadio Algarve, a roar went up from the Irish supporters gathering outside in the evening sunshine, confirmation that Georgia had held onto their 1-0 lead over Scotland in Tbilisi. And with Ireland duly collecting their mandatory three points against Gibraltar, albeit after a less than inspiring performance against Europe’s weakest team, it means a change in the pecking order between the group rivals.
But it’s one which will only begin to count for more so long as the now third-placed Irish complete the second leg of the double with another win against the Georgians in Dublin in two days’ time. True, if they’re not exhausted by their efforts against the Scots, the Georgians will be coming to the Aviva with an unaccustomed pep in their step but, right now, that winning moment of Aiden McGeady magic in the very first game in Tbilisi has the look of something that might yet prove to be even more welcome in the long term than it did on opening night.
There was no McGeady on at the start for last night’s offbeat competitive international in a largely empty stadium —he had to wait until the last 15 minutes before making an appearance — with manager Martin O’Neill continuing his habit of confounding all attempts to predict his starting line-up by calling on Ciaran Clark (in place of game-short Marc Wilson who was also on two yellow cards) to pair up at centre-half with John O’Shea, while Cyrus Christie earned his first competitive cap as a replacement for Seamus Coleman who was left out as a precaution after reporting a tight hamstring. Of no surprise, by contrast, was the selection of Robbie Keane for his 141st cap, the veteran having taken his all-time goal tally to 65 the last time these two sides met in Dublin — which was also, at it happens, the last time Ireland had won a competitive game.
With the sun setting and a stiff Atlantic breeze having taken the heat out of the day, conditions were perfect for kick-off, as the Irish fans making up the bulk of the 5,397 attendance in the 30,00 capacity stadium readied themselves in good voice for what most believed would be about as routine an away assignment as international football can offer.
Still, even Germany had laboured here for the guts of half an hour before making the breakthrough and when Robbie Brady had a fine free-kick well saved by Jordan Perez, Ciaran Clark crashed a header against the bar and Jon Walters had a headed goal ruled out for offiside — all in the course of an opening 12-minute barrage of Irish pressure — it seemed likely that Gibraltar would need helpings of luck as well dogged determination to avoid a repeat of their 7-0 thrashing in Dublin.
But in order to stay in the game, at least on the scoreboard, they also required that manifestly superior opposition would need to be a bit sloppy with their passing and less than clinical in front of goal — two problems which afflicted Ireland despite their huge territorial dominance.
The one-way traffic was briefly reversed after 17 minutes when Gibraltar finally won their first corner but, barely a minute later, the ball was back down the other end, where Robbie Keane shaped himself into a scoring position but could only volley into the side-netting.
With every red shirt bar one frequently behind the ball, Ireland needed a touch of guile to pick the lock — or something more explosive to blow it wide open.
And when the breakthrough came it was from a piece of individual brilliance by new boy Christie, as the full-back — eye-catching throughout — played a one-two with Wes Hoolahan and then jinked his way into the penalty area before striking a shot with the outside of his boot which found its way into the net off the foot of the far post.
You could almost say it was Colemanesque.
But when, on 35 minutes, Shay Given was forced into a flying save to turn away a Liam Walker shot and then Christie had to get a vital touch with his head to prevent a cross reaching captain Roy Chipolina who was unmarked at the far post, the worrying implication was that Gibraltar were not about to fall apart and that Ireland, still far too casual, would need to do a great deal more in the second half to make the points safe.
It began with more frustration for the green shirts as Robbie Keane vainly appealed for a penalty after being manhandled in the box but, two minutes later, the skipper was getting his kicks on Route 66 with surely the easiest goal of his international career when, after Jean Carlos Garcia turned a ball from the hard-working Jon Walters against his own post, the record-breaker had only to tap the ball over the line with the ‘keeper stranded.
And then, just as suddenly, on 51 minutes, it was three for Ireland and 67 for Keane, as he stroked home a penalty after Wes Hoolahan was tripped in the box. Game over.
Poor Gibraltar — the wounding pattern of their second half collapse against Germany was happening all over again, and the only question now, it seemed, was whether or not they could keep the scoreline reasonably respectable.
In fact, to their credit, they managed to pose the Irish one or two problems, with Robbie Brady at one point called upon to make a goal-defying block before, in the 79thminute, substitute Shane Long headed home from a cross from the impressive Jeff Hendrick to complete the 4-0 win — and cap the events of a day which ultimately breathed fresh life into Ireland’s flagging Euros campaign.
Perez, Garcia, Barnett, Roy Chipolina, Joseph Chipolina, Sergeant (Gulling 85), Walker, Bardon, Kyle Casciaro (Gosling 61), Lee Casciaro, Duarte (Yome 74).
REP OF IRELAND:
Given, Christie, O’Shea, Clark, Hendrick, Hoolahan (McGeady 77), McCarthy (Quinn 70), Whelan, Brady, Keane (Long 71),Walters.
Marijo Strahonja (Croatia).
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