Dion Fanning: A lifeless Ireland game in a half-empty stadium lit up by quality goal
This was a familiar night at the Aviva. It was a lifeless game in a half-empty stadium with very little to remember about the evening except the goal and, most importantly, the result.
There are many valid reasons to fear the arrival of Germany and the trip to Poland next month but victory here has at least allowed Ireland some leeway. They are a team that needs plenty of leeway.
Jon Walters will remember his goal but it may also be remembered as the time when Jeff Hendrick started to feel he belonged in international football.
Hendrick made the goal with a dazzling run which contrasted so much with all that had gone before. He had grown into the game in the second half even if that was also in comparison to a first half when Ireland’s midfield had done very little.
At the final whistle, Hendrick and Robbie Brady embraced. They had grown up playing football together and they both offer some hope for Ireland’s future.
Hendrick’s contribution to the goal hinted at the talent he has which has impressed former midfielders in Irish managerial set-ups such as Roy Keane and Marco Tardelli. For a long time, you would have had to search hard to locate that talent during a turgid game but it made a decisive contribution.
Ireland’s talent is scattered sparingly across the side but this game also demonstrate an equal lack of leadership.
Martin O’Neill will always praise Ireland for their effort but if a play-off looks more likely now after a weekend when his side took six points and Scotland claimed none, there is no way Ireland can be cocky. This is a side which is more capable of losing to Germany and Poland than beating either of them. Scotland are unlikely to do Ireland another favour when they play Gibraltar on the final day.
For now, O’Neill can be pleased with the result which keeps his ordinary side in contention for qualification but once again questions could be asked about his approach and the worrying sense that the team doesn’t look to be progressing under his management.
Robbie Keane said he wasn’t bothered by the records that could have come his way in this game but early on, it didn’t look as if he had no interest in records when he took on a shot with James McCarthy in a better position. Keane’s chance came during an opening spell when Ireland looked as if they would build on their improved position in the group and perform with verve and imagination.
Ireland, unfortunately, are a team of limited creativity which means their ideas dry up quite quickly. By the end of the first half, they were hitting aimless balls to imaginary forwards which may shown a vivid imagination but not one that wins football matches.
Keane’s chance came at the end of a move which had begun on the far side with Robbie Brady getting forward before a neat one-two between Wes Hoolahan and Jon Walters allowed Hoolahan to cross to the far post.
O’Neil had made much of Hoolahan’s freshness before the game and he began with a youthful zeal. Hoolahan had never started consecutive competitive games for Ireland before this year. He has now started the last four and he is becoming the critical figure in the side, something he demonstrated in every sense at the Aviva, as he started with great energy before fading as Ireland faded.
Ireland might have anticipated some more support for a game which managed to be critical to Ireland’s hopes while also not being very attractive to many supporters. It came at the end of a long weekend of sporting excellence and it wasn’t the most beguiling tie. People can’t be expected to travel on a Monday night to watch one of the more mediocre sides in international football. And Georgia aren’t great either.
The opening minutes were the best for Ireland but slowly Georgia edged into the game, demonstrating a willingness to play which exposed Ireland’s midfield and defence in a way which showed there is little reason for optimism ahead of next month’s games.
Levan Mchedlidze shot weakly after running straight through Ireland’s back four, while Tornike Okriashvili. who scored spectacularly when the sides met in Tbilisi, was finding space and demonstrating he had enough craft and vision to damage O’Neill’s side.
The game had lost its way, as if Ireland were following Scotland’s game against Germany in Glasgow along with most of the crowd. Seamus Coleman’s volley ten minutes before half-time reignited the match a little bit but there was still the sense of a team straining to play like a team once those first fifteen minutes of invention had disappeared.
There were long balls to forwards who have no pace, crosses into the box for a side without a target man and an air in defence of a side one step away from calamity.
O’Neill’s decision to take Keane off at half-time couldn’t be disputed even if Ireland now had eleven men on the pitch who had scored only thirty international goals between them.
Keane had never looked like adding to his 67 and Ireland played with a little more fluency without him. His replacement Shane Long could also chase the long balls that seemed to be part of the plan.
Even during the period of supremacy in the second half, there was so much hesitancy and so many snatched chances which suggested this was a side unsure of itself and what it should be doing.
Yet there were other moments when the young players on the team linked in a fashion which gave some hope. A sweeping Hendrick ball out to Coleman was one of those moments, particularly as it was followed up by a lifted pass into James McCarthy’s path which brought an Ireland corner. When McCarthy hit a shot that ended up near the corner flag from that corner, the real world was grim and unrelenting again.
But then Hendrick created the goal with a stunning run as he cut in from the left, beat two Georgian defenders and crossed for Walters to flick in neatly.
At the end of the evening, Ireland’s reality looked a little better but few would be fooled by the result. This side is capable of anything, anything except being truly convincing.