Mediocre performance but a night that change’s the group dynamic.
1. Hoolahan central to Ireland’s qualification aspirations
Martin O’Neill’s orthodox 4-4-2 formation got the job done in Faro despite struggling to break down Gibraltar’s back four for long periods.
Thankfully, Wes Hoolahan’s presence in the starting line-up ensured Robbie Keane and Jonathan Walters were provided with an ample supply of possession with the midfielder also acting as an effective pivot between defence and attack.
The Irish manager’s pre-match comments that the Norwich City playmaker was in the team because ‘Ireland needed to win the game’ were telling.
Too often in the past, Hoolahan has suffered by failing to impose himself against stronger opponents and being hauled ashore long before the full time whistle. Last night’s display reminded his manager that the 33-year old remains Ireland’s most creative attacking outlet, able to unlock defences and win free-kicks plus penalties with his quick feet.
Hoolahan’s ability to pick out a killer pass will be crucial if the Republic of Ireland are to defeat Georgia, especially with Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy’s influence in the final third rendered negligible due to their defensive responsibilities.
2. Clark, Hendrick and Christie provide useful options for Martin O’Neill
Despite the paucity of opposition, Cyrus Christie, Jeff Hendrick and Ciaran Clark enhanced their future prospects with composed displays in a rejigged Irish back four.
Christie’s willingness to join the attack gave Gibraltar plenty of issues as did Hendrick on the opposite wing. Aston Villa’s Clark headed against the crossbar from a set piece and a formed a solid partnership alongside the more experienced John O’Shea.
Marc Wilson and Seamus Coleman will retake their places against Georgia but Derby County’s Christie certainly grasped his opportunity by netting a fine individual goal and offering a possible alternative to the current Irish right-back.
Clark, Christie and Jeff Hendrick’s inclusion and subsequent displays in Faro suggest they have moved up the pecking order ahead of Richard Keogh and Stephen Ward and that is good news for Martin O’Neill.
3. What a difference a day makes
The Republic of Ireland trailed Scotland in the Group D standings ahead of Gordon Strachan’s side’s early afternoon kick-off away to Georgia but finished the night a point clear following a surprise result in Tbilisi.
Yet, Ireland’s performance was sloppy and uninspiring until two Robbie Keane goals in three minutes gave the visitors some breathing space.
Failure to convert enough goal-scoring opportunities has remained a troubling statistic during Martin O’Neill’s tenure, underlined by Wes Hoolahan, Jonathan Walters and Ciaran Clark missing the target in Faro.
Such wayward shooting will not suffice against a Georgian side coming off a morale-boosting victory over Scotland and a defence nowhere near as accommodating as Gibraltar’s.
A miserable evening for the Scots was compounded when their chartered plane failed to turn up and delayed the squad’s return until 6am Saturday morning, two days before taking on Germany. What a difference a day makes.
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