Russia’s visit will be the acid test

CHRISTIAN Martinez won’t ever forget his first trip to Dublin.

Still only 20 years of age and winning just his fifth cap last night, the defender’s golden moment arrived just on the stroke of half-time when the ball fell kindly for him just outside the Irish penalty area.

His first-time half-volley was a thing of beauty all in itself but it was a moment made all the sweeter for its sheer rarity in that it ended Andorra’s run of 427 minutes without a goal.

Oscar Sonajee had been the last man to find the net for the tiny principality when he did the honours in a dead rubber of a World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan 363 days before.

Martinez’s effort was spectacular and must have been faintly annoying for Richard Dunne whose stray header allowed the opportunity but it was no more than a minor inconvenience for his hosts.

Already two ahead at the time, Ireland restored that cushion inside 10 minutes after the break. It was football on cruise control.

Andorra arrived with a reputation for a physical brand of defensive football but any mean streak was well hidden last night.

It took all of half an hour for Ildefons Lima to pick up their first yellow card of the evening and the central defender’s offence was one of excessive mouth rather than force.

The away side all but signed over the rights to the ball prior to kick-off and allowed Giovanni Trapattoni’s side to do with it as they pleased – until they approached the Andorran box, that was.

The Italian had voiced his concern about whether or not his players would be afforded sufficient space to swing a leg for a shot on goal in his pre-match press conference and so it proved for a while.

Robbie Keane had first-half two goalbound attempts blocked by a posse of blue shirts, every one of whom were pulling double shifts in their frantic fire-fighting operations.

Did we learn anything we didn’t already know? Not at all. This was never going to be a night for players to pout their hands up and force their way into the starting eleven – or work their way out of it.

All in all, it was hardly the most tempting opposition with which to lure in the paying public for the Aviva’s competitive debut and the FAI’s insistence that 40,000 tickets had been sold looked improbable as the sides took to the red carpet.

By then, with less than minutes to kick-off, the new ground was no more than half full but the vast empty swathes of green gradually began to disappear and morph into a healthy attendance of 40,283.

No doubt some others were put off by Trapattoni’s warning not to expect a hatful of goals but the evening, though largely one to forget, ticked all the relevant boxes for the Italian.

For a start, Glenn Whelan navigated his way through an hour without picking up a second yellow card that would have ruled him out of next month’s tie against Russia here in Dublin. Add to that Robbie Keane’s first goal of the season for club and country and Kevin Doyle’s thoroughly deserved reward of a screamer after his heroic performance in Yerevan and everyone was able to go home happy.

Including Martinez.

With Russia losing 1-0 to Slovakia in Moscow some hours earlier, Ireland now have the opportunity to put serious distance between themselves and the group favourites in just over four week’s time.

Only then, with a full house, will we get a better idea of what this stadium and this team is capable of in the months and years to come.


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