Dion Fanning: Superhero from two yards saves Ireland from a struggle
Published 05/09/2015 | 02:30
For 45 minutes in Faro last night, it looked like a favour from Georgia might not even be enough to allow Ireland seize the advantage in this group.
At half-time, Martin O'Neill's side led thanks to Cyrus Christie's goal, but it hadn't been easy and the failings of the side were familiar failings.
Then Robbie Keane, who hadn't scored for Ireland since the home game against Gibraltar last October, scored. And then he scored again.
As he reaches the end of his astonishing career, Keane may now only score goals against teams as weak as Gibraltar but one thing was clear last night: Ireland still need those goals.
Before the game, Ireland's captain engaged in a manic pre-match warm-up routine which included spraying the kit man with his water bottle, some highly charged sprints, an accidental tumble at the end of one of those purposeful sprints, and a team huddle somehow squeezed in as well.
Keane began the game finding space easily but only once did the ball drop to him when Wes Hoolahan picked the Tallaght man out but his shot hit the side-netting.
The game, remarkably enough, had slipped away from Ireland towards the end of the first half so when Keane scored twice - the second from the penalty spot - at the start of the second half, it brought great relief.
His first was a tap-in which came at the end of a surging run by Jon Walters. Anyone could have scored it, some people will say, but when Keane is not there to tap them in, some will wonder why nobody is in those positions.
Keane is always in those positions, especially against teams like Gibraltar who, Keane knows, will stop paying attention at some point or move into the wrong position.
When they do, Keane is there, a superhero from two yards, but Ireland don't have too many heroes from any distance. Without Keane, Ireland might have found last night's game even more of a struggle. They had started well but when Gibraltar's goalkeeper, Jordan Perez, performed unorthodox heroics, the movement and invention of the opening spell quickly disappeared.
The midfield vanished too, with James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick absent for long periods, occasionally re-emerging to give the ball away.
Ireland again longed for some leaders on the field and Gibraltar might have been regretting the abandonment of the all-out attack strategy favoured by their previous coach because Ireland's defence looked as shaky as the home side's when it was threatened.
Shay Given had to make a couple of saves in the first half as Ireland surrendered possession too easily and lost their shape.
The pre-match talk had focused on the key words for a game against a side like Gibraltar. 'Complacency' and 'respect' were mentioned in heavy rotation but to listen to Gibraltar as they spoke of measuring progress through metrics detached from winning or drawing was to get the idea that this wouldn't be a tense night.
When Scotland lost in Tbilisi, the pre-match mood was transformed. Suddenly people were giddily thinking about qualification again. It was a result which confirmed O'Neill's words from earlier this year that there was a long way to go in the group and there is always a long way to go for a country like Scotland with their historical tendency towards self-sabotage.
Scotland, of course, are almost as capable of beating Germany when they meet on Monday as they are of losing to Georgia and Ireland's self-destructive tendencies might be tested again when the Georgians come to town.
In some ways, last night resembled the day when Ireland had beaten Andorra in Barcelona back in 2001. Then Roy Keane had warned about complacency and he had won a penalty which brought the game's first goal and ended the anxiety.
Keane was on the sideline last night, presumably trying to transmit the same message while Given and Keane were survivors from that game. Keane has now scored 60 goals for his country since that afternoon in Catalonia.
Gibraltar's coach, Jeff Wood, has had a long career in football but a point or better last night would have been the most improbable moment of all. "I'll buy you a pint," he said to an Irish journalist when he was asked what it would mean on Thursday.
His money looked safe in the opening minutes. O'Neill's side weren't complacent but they were relaxed, comfortable in trying to be creative on the ball, seemingly aware that if an opportunity was wasted, a chance would come again.
O'Neill didn't seem relaxed. He turned away in frustration when a Walters header was ruled out for offside and his mood may have revealed something about his worries concerning this team.
Soon they were revealing themselves as less than relaxed, they were jittery, no matter what the result in Tbilisi should have done for them.
Keane ended their worries with his two goals, which leave him one behind Gerd Muller. When O'Neill took him off with 20 minutes to go, Keane would have been thinking about that record. O'Neill was wondering who else will score on Monday. Keane's replacement, Shane Long, scored the final goal with a fine header but he may not have removed O'Neill's doubts.
Walters was tireless last night and rightly awarded man-of-the-match but there was a moment 15 minutes from time which illustrated why Ireland still need Keane. The ball fell to Walters six yards from goal but instead of tapping in, Walters fell over. He was exhausted, in part because he had done Keane's running, but Ireland still need a man who believes in nothing but scoring goals.