Lewandowski stars as Poles seal deserved ticket
Poland 2-1 Ireland
Published 12/10/2015 | 02:30
Ireland tried to put Poland under pressure but the locals handled it in the key moments to book their place in France next summer and condemn their guests to an uncertain November.
Martin O'Neill's men piled bodies forward in search of a late leveller that would have secured a high-scoring draw and automatic qualification.
There would be no Hollywood ending this time around, though, with Richard Keogh wasting a fine chance. Instead there was an unwelcome headache with an injury-time dismissal for John O'Shea ruling him out of the first leg of next month's play-off along with Jon Walters.
Fittingly, it was a second yellow for a foul on Robert Lewandowski, who lived up to his billing by justifying the pre-match assertions from his camp that he's the best number nine in the world. His 15th goal in his last six games for the club and country settled a game where all the goals came before the break.
Throughout the game, he exposed fault lines in an Irish unit that kicked him but could not stop him. Walters accrued his second caution for a foul on the darling of the Warsaw crowd although O'Neill, who was disappointed with O'Shea's needless indiscretion, felt it was harsh. Either way, it could prove costly.
The result means Ireland head for the familiar drama of the play-offs, a scenario that O'Neill has been aiming for since the summer and would have taken at the start of this week.
Results elsewhere this weekend have not been kind in terms of play-off seeding, although developments in the other qualifying groups tonight and tomorrow could yet change that picture. A number of surprises are required. The draw takes place next Sunday.
Still, they won't be facing a team of Germany's calibre, a point that management will doubtless be drilling home. There was a mood of deflation at the final whistle, with the Irish players keen to escape a Polish party, and this exercise was a reminder that a lot will have to go right to make France.
An injury to Wes Hoolahan which curtailed his involvement to a 20-minute cameo removed creativity from a side that was short of it.
With Glenn Whelan restored as a shield, Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy were further advanced with James McClean and Walters on the flanks and unsurprising selection Shane Long roving up top, setting the tone for his busy contribution by chasing around Polish defenders like a madman from the tip.
That frantic incident indicated this would be a high tempo and with an uneven pitch adding another element, the opening quarter was chaotic. O'Neill said on Saturday that his players needed to match their German performance, but the composure and decision-making that shone in the dying stages was absent as Irish uncertainty and Polish pressing caused trouble. He put it down to a shortage of intensity.
Brady had struggled initially in Dublin as he learned his new role and Adam Nawalka set out with the intention of giving the Norwich man a rough evening. He succeeded. Pawel Olkowski was brought in on that side and Poland targeted that flank when they gained possession.
It was hard for Brady and he wasn't helped by his counterparts in a scramble which summed up the half and ultimately led to the 13th-minute breakthrough.
O'Shea, Brady and James McClean had chances to clear in a flurry of pushing and shoving which Poland turned into an opening for Kamil Grosicki who was denied by a fine Seamus Coleman block and a Darren Randolph save.
Green shirts were gathering breath and switched off to a quick corner routine and a chip to the edge of the area where Sevilla's Grzegorz Krychowiak had time to unleash a shot that eventually found the bottom corner via a slight deflection.
In response, Ireland immediately won a penalty. Long was throwing himself about with abandon and putting his head where it hurts led to a spot kick as a high boot from Michal Pazdan led to Turkish ref Cuneyt Cakir pointing to the spot. It was 50-50 call in terms of whether Long was inside the box.
Walters displayed 100pc conviction by finding his spot with the kick.
It meant one more Irish goal would leave the natives requiring two and there was an edginess around the ground that was also visible on the park. Yet those emotions also existed in the Irish rearguard as Poland had another chalked out for offside. Three minutes before the interval, they finally crafted a movement that allowed the predatory abilities of Lewandowski to come to the fore.
A break from Karol Linetty lured O'Shea out of position and when his pass reached Krzsztof Maczynski, the Bayern Munich star pulled back from Richard Keogh and found himself in the ideal position to get ahead of Walters and dispatch a lofted centre with a firm header. Ireland were in need of another second-half comeback and a game-plan with more variety; the out ball to Long was too often the only one.
That option was removed ten minutes after the restart as Long was hacked down by Glik and rolled around in genuine agony, knowing that his evening was done. O'Neill raged at the premature conclusion to a running battle between the lone attacker and the Polish centre-halves that wouldn't have looked out of place in Cardiff earlier in the day; the match officials adopted a lenient approach.
Robbie Keane was summoned and another change followed as Aiden McGeady was stripped and sent in for Whelan as Ireland switched to 4-4-2; McCarthy was withdrawn to a deeper role that suits his abilities and he announced himself by clattering into the back of Lewandowski in a passage that wound up with Randolph making a fine save from the rampaging Grosicki.
Hoolahan was sprung to mix things up and McGeady's dainty feet provided encouragement as Ireland enjoyed a good spell. Keane couldn't get a sniff, however, with MLS football no preparation for this kind of intensity.
Corners and free-kicks created set-piece opportunities but the best opportunity for a leveller came in general play when one such attempt had broken down. McGeady's superb cross found the unmarked Keogh who should have applied the final touch. His header was short of the power and precision of Lewandowski's earlier conversion and Fabianski pawed it away.
That was goodbye to a stress-free trip home and the late loss of O'Shea after Brady put him in a tight spot removes an ever-present from the picture for round one of the play-off. O'Neill has plenty to ponder, not least the impact that untimely injuries can have on the quality of his team. As ever, Ireland will not be doing it the easy way.