Just about five minutes in, David Meyler had gone in hard on Joe Allen and over 51,000 sets of eyeballs zeroed in on the Italian dressed in black.

Just about five minutes in, David Meyler had gone in hard on Joe Allen and over 51,000 sets of eyeballs zeroed in on the Italian dressed in black.

Nicola Rizzoli hadn’t merited too many column inches in a week dominated by Gareth Bale and absent Irish players but the Bologna architect was about to set the tone for the evening. The whistle stayed around his chest and, with that, Ireland’s chances took a great, big turn for the better.

Rizzoli is no slouch.

World Cup, Europa League and Champions League finals have all passed off under his nose but you never know how the man in the middle will see things until the talking stops.

James McClean had already served notice of the home side’s intentions with a tackle that relieved Gareth Bale of possession in the centre circle. A tackle to be proud of in these parts, it’s been all but hounded from the game by Fifa. Rizzoli didn’t blink.

Not long after and Ramsey was picking himself up off the turf, rolling his neck in protest at the manner in which Stephen Ward took exception to his intentions some moments earlier. You could argue that Seamus Coleman paid the price for such a laissez-faire approach but, until then, it served Ireland well.

Any doubt was dismissed close to the half-hour when Bale shipped a little kick across the calf from Ward as the touchline loomed. No free. The look on Bale’s face as the ball petered out and Ireland were awarded the throw was exactly the sort of snapshot everyone wanted to see in the morning papers.

Bale was expecting this, though. So was Chris Coleman who had waved away Roy Keane’s bald advice to his own players earlier in the week when he stated the case for letting the Real Madrid superstar know they weren’t there to admire his skillset.

“There is nothing that will come that he won’t be ready for,” Coleman had predicted.

Keane knew that, too. Ireland’s assistant manager had warned that great players always find an inch of space, a breather from the in-yer-face grunt of opposing players, to make a mark. Bale had shown that the last time he featured against Irish opposition.

Northern Ireland had done brilliantly to blunt the 27-year old’s brilliance in Paris when they met in the last 16 of Euro 2016 but it was still Bale’s cross that was deflected into the net by Gareth McCauley for the only goal of the game.

Martin O’Neill knew how that felt.

Less than two weeks had passed by then since Zlatan Ibrahimovic sparked to life for a fraction of a second during the Group E game against Sweden in Saint Denis, running onto a John Guidetti backheel and cutting back a cross that the excellent Ciaran Clark sent past Darren Randolph. One moment. That’s all it ever takes.

That was Sweden, though: A side made up of Zlatan and the rest. Wales brought more to Dublin than the Scandinavians had to the Stade de France, not least Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey who had made the Euro 2016 team of the tournament. Unlike Bale.

Ireland were the team to appear painfully limited here. The absence of Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady left a side either unable or unwilling to construct much in the way of fluid football for an entire half and the inevitable result was ball on tap for a Welsh side all too willing to pour it on.

The ease with which Bale, Ramsey and Allen interchanged throughout the night was a joy, even as Ireland toiled to limit their effect. No more than 75 miles separate Dublin and Holyhead but this was light year’s ahead of anything Ireland could envisage and yet still they hung on in.

And more.

The third quarter swung Ireland’s way and, when Rizzoli booked Bale and sent Neil Taylor down the tunnel, ambition stretched beyond containment and towards something much more life-affirming, the shot that Bale sent fizzing past Randolph’s post in the 50th-minute fading into memory as the end game approached.

Another gem from the Real Madrid man had still to shave the outside of the Irish frame and when the fourth official signalled four extra minutes there was a tug-of-war atmosphere to a stadium desperate for a winning Irish goal and yet all too aware of the red menace looking to bear down at the Havelock Square end.


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