Review – It’s been a funny few days in the life of the Republic of Ireland’s international football team.
Having scraped through a game we thought we could win comfortably, things looked grim for the remainder of the Euro 2012 qualifiers. Then, we send out a second string side who lose to the World Cup semi-finalists – and suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad….
OK, Tuesday’s game against Uruguay may have only been a friendly, but there were some positives for Trap to take out of the 3-2 loss.
Forget about the result – from the second Trap named his team, beating the World Cup semi-finalists looked an unlikely outcome. With five of his most senior players (Keane, Duff, Kilbane, Dunne and Doyle) returning to their clubs, the manager gave the younger members of the squad the chance to take centre-stage. What a shame though that little over 15,000 people bothered to show up to see them.
Of the young players who started the Uruguay game, Ciaran Clark stood out as one to watch. The full-back looked composed on the ball, even in times of trouble, as he dragged and flicked the ball away from pressure and made extra yards to move into.
Granted, the first Uruguayan goal came from a defensive howler, but it was great to see how quickly Diego Lugano’s strike was cancelled out. Shane Long grabbed an impressive equaliser when he got on the end of Liam Lawrence’s cross. Even though Edinson Cavani and Abel Hernandez made it 3-1 by half-time the feeling among the sparse attendance was that Ireland didn’t deserve to be two goals down.
The crowd got their wish when the deficit was halved in the second half thanks to Keith Fahey’s penalty, but although Ireland never gave up, that was as good as it got. The game could, and really should, have ended 3-3 but Andy Keogh missed two gilt-edged chances to nick a draw.
Despite the result there were plenty of positives to think about on the way home (new blood at the back, solid midfelders and fresh attacking options) something that seemed a distant possibility after the Macedonia game.
So, back to Saturday. If that infamous ‘I Had A Macedonia’ training jersey was still in circulation chances are it would have been in the possession of Edin Nuredinovski, the visiting side’s goalkeeper, by the end of the evening.
That’s not to say that the Irish fans who did head to the Aviva were complaining. Midway through the first half, when Ireland were 2-0 up, the place was buzzing. The early hopes that Trap’s side could rack up a big win now looked odds-on – had Shane Long hit the net within minutes of his arrival who knows, it could have happened.
However, it turned out to be the complete opposite. Instead, Macedonia’s goal in the last seconds of the first half seemed to suck the life out of the fans – and the confidence out of the side.
Ireland had been rampant at stages in the first period, using McGeady and Duff to devastating effect down the wings, but once Ivan Trickovski turned Richard Dunne inside-out and halved Ireland’s lead things looked very different.
The second half was a tense affair. Central midfield duo Darron Gibson and Glenn Whelan seemed to be over-run in the middle, allowing Macedonia to keep the pressure on us. Great stadium that the Aviva is, it seems that visiting teams can sense the fear that spreads from the fans and use it to their advantage.
It could have gotten much worse for Ireland – when Trickovski split the defence and raced through again. It looked liked he’d score his second of the night, but Westwood made a fine save to keep us in front.
That stop seemed to provide the kick in the arse that Ireland needed. There were a few half-chances, notably from Duff and Keane, but without the injured Doyle, Westwood’s tactic of launching long ball after long ball towards the strikers failed to work. Long is no slouch but lacked Doyle’s aerial dominance, which allowed Macedonia to turn defence into attack.
While the pressure intensified in the closing stages it was really impressive how Ireland played their way out of trouble in the final 15 minutes. The introduction of James McCarthy was probably the high point of the second half for many of the estimated 32,000 who were inside the ground. The will he/won’t he saga was finally, as the Wigan man said himself, ‘put to bed’ when he entered the fray in the 87th minute. McCarthy looked comfortable on the ball, as did Keith Fahey when he came on for the final 15 minutes.
The performance may not have been pretty, but three points are three points. Vying with Russia and Slovakia at the top of the group table. We’d settle for another ugly win in Skopje.