Thursday 21 September 2017

Georgia on Irish minds as Martin O’Neill’s men get job done

Gibraltar 0 Ireland 4

Shane Long, second left, celebrates with his teammates after scoring Ireland’s fourth goal against Gibraltar in Faro last night
Shane Long, second left, celebrates with his teammates after scoring Ireland’s fourth goal against Gibraltar in Faro last night
Irish captain Robbie Keane celebrates scoring his second goal in the 4-0 victory over Gibraltar in the Euro 2016 qualifier in Faro last night
Robbie Keane celebrates after scoring Ireland’s second goal SPORTSFILE
Robbie Keane taps in Ireland's second goal
Republic of Ireland supporters celebrate at the end the game
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Ireland were back in the game before the first whistle was blown at Estadio Algarve, with the earlier news from Tbilisi making this routine exercise an enjoyable one for the travelling supporters in Faro.

The sentiments may have been different for the viewing audience back home as this comfortable success wasn't exactly easy on the eye.

There was a pre-season feeling about the sunny setting and tardy aspects of a display which was anything but free-flowing.

Still, the jousts with the minnows only ever last in the memory if it ends in disaster. And, right now, all Martin O'Neill cares about is the bottom line. In that respect, this was an excellent day for management.

If Ireland can beat Georgia on Monday and match the sum total of Scotland's results against Germany and Poland then a play-off place is assured. The table is far more attractive-looking now than it was June.

The final scoreline in Gibraltar's temporary home also had a healthier veneer following a sharper second-half display featuring a Robbie Keane brace and a late goal for his replacement Shane Long.

Suspicion

But the body language at the final whistle was in line with the suspicion that the players know they will have to do better against the tormentors of the Tartan Army.

"I was concerned about this game," admitted O'Neill afterwards. "Gibraltar have been improving but we brought it on in the second half. The attitude was good."

The Irish players were aware of Scotland's woe, with O'Neill able to catch a few minutes of the action.

"I said before that any team going to Tbilisi was going to find it difficult," he said. "I'm sure it gave the players a lift; I don't think there would ever be a lack of focus but it certainly rekindles the enthusiasm to try and win."

Of course, the fact that Georgia will arrive in Dublin on a high will function as a warning against any complacency. Coming into this double-header, the assumption was that Ireland would get six points and pray for a favour from elsewhere. Now that favour has been delivered in the first leg, there's an added pressure around Monday's Aviva Stadium date.

"There's a renewed spirit about Georgia," O'Neill warned.

It will be difficult for the Derryman to confidently take any lessons from this run-out into Georgia because of Gibraltar's limitations. Still, his team selection fell into a growing pattern of how he wants his team to play.

Early in his reign, it appeared that two wingers on the pitch would be key to his strategy. Now, the width comes from his full-backs after he again went with three central midfielders in the form of Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick with the first-named sitting deep and allowing the others to roam.

In what was effectively a 4-3-3, Robbie Keane was supported by the interchanging Wes Hoolahan and Jon Walters. With Aiden McGeady's lack of game-time worrying management, it's plausible that O'Neill could stick with this personnel.

The real surprises came in defence, however, with a tight hamstring ruling Seamus Coleman out. O'Neill is confident the Everton flier will recover over the weekend.

This opened the door for Derby's Cyrus Christie to win a second cap and make a competitive debut. Marc Wilson - short of match practice at Stoke - lost out to the sharp Ciaran Clark for that reason.

As expected, Shay Given was selected in goals to get 90 minutes, although the reality is that he spent a good portion of that jogging around his own penalty box keeping warm.

It was the netminder at the other end of the pitch, Jordan Perez, that was making contributions to the highlights reel from the outset. He'd been substituted last October after shipping all seven Irish goals inside an hour and clearly, he was intent on a better show.

With the away masses roaring them on, O'Neill's charges racked up a host of early chances. Robbie Brady's left-footed free was denied by an acrobatic stop, Clark headed against the bar, and Keane shot into the side netting.

Any traces of anxiety were removed by a deadlock-breaker from an unlikely source. Collecting a throw-in, Christie - who has endured a tough 2015 - weaved his way into the box and found space in a maze of red shirts to look up and steer the ball past Perez with an accurate stab of his right foot.

A second almost followed with the Gibraltar stopper getting back in the groove by running backwards and getting a strong hand on a speculative Walters volley.

The volume levels raised in the main body of Irish support, with fans in the front row dissatisfied with the performance of the FAI CEO lining up wearing white T-shirts with a letter on them to spell 'Delaney Out'.

They lost that organisation coming up to half-time as a few letters went astray and it mirrored a loss of direction on the pitch as a stodgy period allowed Gibraltar to enjoy a couple of forays into Irish territory.

Given had to move smartly to push a Liam Walker shot behind for a corner and Christie made another important contribution with a clearing header as a cross into the box found an abundance of red shirts.

Half-time provided the opportunity to regroup and they emerged to remove any trace of doubt by the hour mark.

Force

The strong running of Walters was a driving force and his run and deflected cross caused chaos that left Keane with a simple tap-in to bring his international tally to 66.

Unsurprisingly, 67 was also on the menu, with McCarthy releasing Walters down the right before his centre controlled cleverly by Hoolahan who drew a foul from Walker. The fans chanted the name of the skipper and he duly converted with aplomb.

He didn't get the chance to complete a hat-trick and move level with Gerd Muller in the charts as O'Neill turned to Long, feeling that the LA Galaxy star was getting tired.

McCarthy was also withdrawn after lifting his performance levels in the decisive period; lethargy was the word that sprung to mind before the break. McGeady, meanwhile, was given 15 minutes in place of Hoolahan.

There was one worrying moment for the rearguard when John Sergeant easily made his way past Clark with Brady darting across to make an accurate tackle that averted the danger.

That focused Irish minds again and, much to the disappointment of the noisy Gibraltar hardcore and Perez, a fourth Irish goal was on the way.

Hendrick had threatened sporadically and his endeavour paid off as an advance down the right and lofted centre was headed home by Long.

That was the end of the scoring, with O'Neill hoping the rest is saved for a rare Monday date that should have a buzz around it thanks to the efforts of the guests.

Irish Independent

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