WELL, at least no-one can say it was dull.
But while last night’s European Championship qualifier might have treated us to a stirring comeback, an uplifting late cameo by Shane Long and a pulsating edge of the seat finish, not even the intense drama of the last 15 minutes at the Aviva Stadium should mask the fact that Russia deservedly took the spoils from a game in which, for long periods before that remarkable final phase, they threatened to run riot against an outclassed Irish side.
True, what we can only call home disadvantage in Group B – Russia, and Ireland have now lost in the irrespective backyards – means that the table could still look a whole lot worse after three games but, in his heart of hearts, even Giovanni Trapattoni will struggle to see any significant upside to what, for a long time, was shaping up to be his bleakest night so far as Irish manager.
Ireland might still be level on points with Russia (and Slovakia) in Group B but for three-quarters of this game they were simply second-best in every department to Dick Advocaat’s dazzling side.
A commanding 3-0 lead, which lasted up to the 70th minute, hardly flattered the visitors but it was undoubtedly kind to Ireland who struggled painfully to recover from the blow of going behind in the 11th minute. It was a night when for long periods Irish deficiencies were ruthless exposed by the pace, skill and movement of the resurgent Russians. This was especially the case in central midfield where, while Paul Green was tigerish in the tackle, Ireland simply couldn’t get hold of the ball, let alone retain possession for any meaningful length of time.
Short on creativity and struggling even in the basic task of providing some defensive cover for the back four, Green and Glenn Whelan were over-run time and time again. Until a charitable penalty was awarded to, and gratefully received by, Robbie Keane in the 70th minute, the only consolation for Ireland was that three could easily have been four or even five.
And it had all started so well,
Ireland having received the boost going into the game of knowing that Armenia had beaten Slovakia 3-1 in Yerevan , a result which both placed a fresh question mark over the true quality of the Slovaks and put Ireland’s 0-1 win in the Armenian capital in an even more flattering light.
The big question, as kick-off approached, was which side would be able to take most advantage of Slovakia ‘s woes. And, very briefly, in what was an end to end opening to the game, it looked like it might be Ireland.
Seven minutes in, Aiden McGeady got his first chance to run at the Russian defence, cutting inside to fire off a shot which Igor Akinfeev, a nervous presence throughout, could only parry. Fastening onto the loose ball, Robbie Keane attempted to chip one back to the far post, only to see his effort come back over the crossbar before the mini-siege ended with McGeady blasting across the face of goal from an acute angle. But, with the crowd noise rising, that would be about as good as it got for Ireland in what rapidly descended into a nightmare first half for the home team.
Russia had already looked threatening but, when their opening goal came, it owed much to Irish error. Richard Dunne could feel harshly punished for conceding a soft free-kick but when Andrey Arshavin’s delivery whistled in at the near post, Shay Given couldn’t clutch it safely to his chest. From the rebound off the Donegal man, Sergey Ignashevich reacted quickest to turn the ball back across the face of goal where, despite the attempted intervention of Sean St Ledger, Alexander Kerzhakov was able to find the back of the net.
Ireland would now have to do it the hard way, if they were going to do it at all, while fully aware that Russia’s speed and fluid movement made them a potentially lethal threat on the break. And so it proved just short of the half-way mark when, with the Irish completely sucked out of position, a perceptive pass put Alexander Anyukov away in acres of space down the right. The full-back then had plenty of time to pull back a low diagonal cross which, after Kerzhakov’s clever dummy, Alan Dzagoev flashed low to the back of the net.
There were no changes at half time but Giovanni Trapattoni was finally forced into action after Roman Shirokov’s shot deflected into the net off Richard Dunne, up to that point the Irish player least entitled to suffer bad luck.
Ten minutes later, on came Shane Long and, with Darron Gibson not far behind, the fresh legs offered fresh impetus to an Irish challenge which had, previously, been most notable for the poverty of its imagination, with almost everything originating from the goalkeeper’s route one punts.
Yet, when Robbie Keane calmly exploited his fortuitous penalty chance with 20 minutes to go, it seemed like it would achieve little more than take the bare look off the scoreboard. But when, just seven minutes later, Shane Long took advantage of Russian hesitancy at the back to claim a striker’s opportunistic goal, the whole night suddenly looked as if it might be turned on its head. But it was too little, too late, and as he flapped ateverything in the air, one could only rue the fact that it had taken Ireland so long to put Akinfeev under any kind of sustained pressure.
But, despite the exhortations of a crowd now firmly back on message, a most unlikely comeback couldn’t be completed. Indeed, had Russian sub Pavel Pogrebnyak not been guilty of a horrible point-blank miss in time added on, the visitors would have been spared a nerve-jangling denouement before their travelling support, in a crowd of just over 50,000, could finally swap relief for outright celebration.
Subs for Rep of Ireland: Long for Lawrence 62, Gibson for Whelan 66, Fahey for Doyle 71.
Subs for Russia: Semshov for Zyryanov 68, Pogrebniak for Kerzhakov 80, A Berezutsky for Dzagoev 84.
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