Dion Fanning: O'Neill surrenders advantage before a ball is kicked
Published 12/10/2015 | 02:30
Nobody can stop Robert Lewandowski, Poland's coach Adam Nawalka had warned before last night's game and though Ireland tried, they joined a long list of the bewildered in Warsaw last night.
All evening Ireland swarmed round Lewandowski like Secret Service men protecting the president if he was under attack, although Ireland were less keen on protecting their man.
They grabbed Lewandowski and tugged him, kneed him and pulled him and, in injury-time, John O'Shea was sent off when he dragged him down on the halfway line.
The one thing they couldn't do was stop him.
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Lewandowski scored his 15th goal in six games three minutes before half-time when he powered a header past Darren Randolph.
Poland went 2-1 up at that point and Ireland couldn't recover, even if some battles had been lost beforehand.
Martin O'Neill had found a functioning midfield against Germany on Thursday but last night he dismantled it, recalling Glenn Whelan and leaving out Wes Hoolahan while Robbie Brady returned to left-back.
It was a pointless abandonment of what had worked against Germany.
They swapped the energy and understanding of James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, Hoolahan and Brady for the wild enthusiasm of James McClean - supplemented later by the equally erratic but less enthusiastic Aiden McGeady - and the village elder Whelan, whose appeal is very much to the knowing insider: if you can't see what he's doing, you mustn't understand what is being done.
Ireland had surrendered the advantage from Thursday night. This was a night when they would have to summon reserves of energy and spirit but some of that went with the selection.
For the first half-an-hour they played their part in a crazy game and when Hoolahan finally came on for the last 20 minutes, the midfield had some of the strengths again of the Germany game.
The book-keeping side of things is looking more ominous for Ireland. Results elsewhere over the weekend have pushed Ireland towards the unseeded half of the table of third-placed teams.
The victory against Germany may have given Ireland greater confidence but the National Stadium in Warsaw was the place to demonstrate it, rather than wait for the uncertainty of next month.
Ireland had the opportunity last night to give the win against Germany greater meaning but it would require a result equally historic.
Before Thursday, few would have said this was a team building steadily towards one defining moment in their international careers but so much had changed when Long scored that, three days later, this team could confidently look for another.
O'Neill's selection was the first dent in the confidence. Hoolahan eventually came from the bench and McCarthy played with greater authority when Whelan came off after 56 minutes and he switched to a deeper midfield position.
He had started the game in an advanced midfield role and sometimes he wasn't even in midfield and was instead the closest player to Long.
Long's intentions were clear from kick-off as he charged down Grzegorz Krychowiak as he embarked on a half of vigorous intensity.
Long chased lost causes and he pursued hopeful punts, he challenged for every header and he marauded across the line of the back four, searching for hesitancy and determined to capitalise on weakness.
His rallying cry hadn't been a soundbite. He had been given the opportunity to make the victory against Germany the turning point in the group for Ireland, the moment when qualification became a reality. And here he was, not so much walking the walk as sprinting it.
When he left the field after a heavy challenge from Kamil Glik, some hope went with him.
Robbie Keane came on in his place. This was the stage for Keane to be a hero one last time even if the time for that has probably gone.
Poland's first goal came as Ireland tangled themselves up in a mess on the left of their defence which resulted in the corner from which Krychowiak opened the scoring.
Long was involved again to win the penalty when Michal Pazdan kicked him in the head on the edge of the box and Jon Walters equalised from the spot.
Ireland took heart from their goal but they didn't seem to learn too many lessons from Poland's.
Both sides were always on the verge of a collapse but Ireland's always looked as if it could be systemic.
Poland's second goal came from the same weak spot down the left of Ireland's defence and when Krzysztof Maczynski crossed, Lewandowski drove in a devastating header from the penalty spot with Walters trying to close him down.
Ireland laboured through the second half. Keane might have been the player who would get a goal but the things he can no longer do seemed even more obvious after Long's performance.
Poland were nervous as they held the 2-1 lead, retreating and depending on Lewandowski who, it has to be said, is dependable.
He doesn't do much outside the box, except contest every ball and get up after every defender's challenge. O'Neill ended the evening praising him but adding that "he knows the game".
He also knows how to score, of course.
Ireland couldn't cope. Richard Keogh went close with a late header but the goals which had defined Ireland weren't going to come.
Instead they have another chance next month but we must wait until next Sunday to see who Ireland will face. In many ways, we will also have to wait and see which Ireland Martin O'Neill decides will face them.