With Austria’s visit just a week away, this was a timely boost for Ireland as they produced a convincing victory which could not be undermined even by a quite spectacular miss from Jon Walters.
Rep of Ireland 3 J.Walters 27, C.Christie 51, J.McClean 77’ Uruguay 1 J.Giménez 77
As it was, the Stoke man had already opened the scoring at that point with a fine goal and, after Uruguay had capitalised on a Darren Randolph error to equalise, one of the stars of this Irish show, Cyrus Christie, restored the home side’s lead before James McClean came off the bench to complete the scoring in trademark style.
After the failed experimentation with three at the back and a largely second string 11 against Mexico in New Jersey, Martin O’Neill turned to a clutch of his old reliables for what was something much closer to a dress rehearsal for the big one next Sunday.
But, in keeping with habit, he managed to retain an element of surprise by giving Corkman Kevin Long his first start, alongside Shane Duffy, in the heart of the defence, and offering Jonny Hayes another opportunity to press his claim on the left flank.
Ireland set up in a familiar enough 4-2-3-1, Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter screening the back four, with Hayes and Robbie Brady, the latter initially deployed on the right, flanking Jeff Hendrick in the middle behind frontman Jon Walters.
And with both Cyrus Christie and Stephen Ward never slow to advance from their respective full-back berths, the home side’s play had a pleasingly fluid look about it in the game’s opening exchanges, though there was a slight scare for the crowd when, perhaps getting too much into the expansive mood, Darren Randolph risked a long pass out to Christie that came within millimetres of being intercepted by Edinson Cavani.
Unfortunately for the PSG striker, that was to be the totality of his contribution as injury forced him out of the game shortly after.
Meanwhile, the Irish continued to make all the early running, Brady forcing debutant ‘keeper Esteban Conde into a diving save and then, from the resulting short corner, whipping a cross into the box which, with the goal beckoning, just eluded the head of the elongated Shane Duffy at full stretch.
At the other end, Duffy getting caught under a high diagonal cross could have been even more costly but Cavani’s replacement, Cristhian Stuani, could only volley tamely at Randolph having had time to chest the ball down.
Coming close to the 20- minute mark, that was Uruguay’s first meaningful attempt on the home goal, the Irish continuing to enjoy the bulk of possession — a rare enough sight for the faithful — and, at one point, even attracting ‘oohs’ of admiration as Brady and Christie exchanged a lovely one-two before the latter’s typically surging run was ended at the expense of a free-kick.
The deserved lead finally came in the 27th minute, Walters with a wonderfully whipped effort to the top corner from just outside the box, despite there being blue shirts in numbers around him before he managed to get his opportunistic shot away.
Duffy and the impressive Long had been winning almost everything in the air at the back until the 33rd minute when Southampton’s Martin Caceres, with a brilliant leap and header, rattled Randolph’s crossbar.
That was a warning which went unheeded. Punishment was duly to follow four minutes later, as the ‘keeper came off his line but failed to get his fist anywhere near a free-kick floated into the box, allowing Jose Gimenez to send a header looping into the unguarded net.
Probably even more worrying for O’Neill was the sight of the industrious and influential Harry Arter briefly hobbling after he’d had an ankle clipped but, no sooner was he back on his feet, than relief turned to dismay and even astonishment in the Aviva as Jon Walters spectacularly blew a chance to score his second and restore Ireland’s lead.
The move began with Christie hitting a fine crossfield ball to find Brady on the left, the Burnley man having switched flanks with Hayes. In turn, Brady’s perfect first-time volley back inside found Walters unmarked a couple of yards out and with the goal at his mercy.
But to general disbelief, not least his own, he somehow contrived to turn his shot against the crossbar and away to safety. It was a moment which ensured that, if nothing else, this summer friendly in Dublin would be remembered not just for a cracking goal by Walters but also for one of the most embarrassing misses of his distinguished career.
After what would have been an unhappy 45 for him, Randolph made way for Keiren Westwood at the start of the second-half while Wes Hoolahan came on for Glenn Whelan.
But it was Cyrus Christie, already having an impressive game both defensively and going forward, who took matters into his own hands in the 50th minute to put Ireland back in front as, taking advantage of some slack defending, he cut in from the right and steered a left-footed shot inside Conde’s far post.
In his first contribution to the game, Westwood made a bit of a meal of stopping a long-range effort from Vecino, not exactly the introduction he would have wanted in what he might have regarded as a timely opportunity to stake a claim to the number 1 shirt against Austria.
To that end, far, far better was his superb one-handed save to keep out a goal-bound Jose Giminez header in the 67th minute.
A host of changes for both sides added to the sense of the game becoming more of an audition than a contest — or at least that was until the arrival from off the bench of James McClean in the 73rd minute.
Barely three minutes later, the man who doesn’t do friendlies was charging full-tilt onto a superb pass from another sub, Daryl Murphy, hurdling a last-ditch challenge and then, in almost a mirror image of his goal in Vienna, drilling the ball through the ‘keeper’s legs into the far corner.
In the thinly populated stands, they rose to acclaim Ireland’s latest cult hero in song while in the dug-out Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane exchanged broad grins.
Overall, this was encouraging stuff as phoney wars go but now it’s on to the real thing in seven days’ time.
Randolph (Westwood 45), Christie, Duffy (Pearce 60), Long, Ward, Whelan (Hoolahan 45), Arter, Hayes (McGeady 60), Hendrick (McClean 73), Brady, Walters (Murphy 60).
Conde, Pereira (Ricca 61), Gimenez, Coates, Caceres, Sanchez (Nandez 45), Arevalo Rios (Gonzalez 45), Vecino, Laxalt (Silva 45), Urretaviscaya, Cavani (Stuani 12).
Craig Thomson (Scotland)
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