Robbie Brady lifts gloom but Edin Dzeko leveller dampens Irish joy
Bosnia 1 Ireland 1
Published 14/11/2015 | 02:30
The first half was hard to watch and the second was extremely difficult to see but, in the circumstances, Ireland will be extremely satisfied to emerge from Zenica with this Euro 2016 tie all square ahead of Monday's decider.
With the thick fog that fell over Stadion Bilino Polje at the interval seriously affecting the visibility levels, Robbie Brady emerged from the gloom to score the precious away goal that put Ireland firmly in control with nine minutes remaining.
Martin O'Neill will be frustrated that Bosnia squared things up just three minutes later by eventually yielding joy from their persistent attacks down the right side with Edin Dzeko calmly dispatching from close range.
But the body language after the goal demonstrated the Bosnian feelings about the overall situation as they raced to get the ball from the net and seek another goal that would give them an advantage heading to Dublin.
They were unable to do so, with their coach Mehmed Bazdarevic admitting: "We do have regrets for not doing more."
As it stands, a scoreless draw in the second leg would be enough to secure Ireland a ticket in France. The overall offensive performance will need to be better, though, and the frenetic nature of the final minutes here suggested there should be thrills and spills.
"The onus is on us now, and we have to try and win because Bosnia are capable of scoring a goal," said O'Neill, "Our mindset should be to go and win the game. We will attempt to attack more during the course of the second game. That would be our objective if we can. I don't think we have an advantage. We have an away goal, which helps, but that can be wiped out at any given minute."
This was a first leg which provided a pertinent reminder that play-off formats bring together sides that didn't qualify through the automatic route for a reason.
The Bosnian rearguard displayed signs of vulnerability that will be relished by Jon Walters and also Shane Long if he beats the odds to recover.
Their absence here made the process of team selection easier for O'Neill and, for once, there were no real surprises when the team-sheet was released. Daryl Murphy was the lone striker with Stephen Ward introduced at left full and Robbie Brady pushed into midfield.
Indeed, it was the locals that were taken aback by a managerial decision as Bazdarevic broke from the 4-2-3-1 that has served his team well in qualifiers and switched to two up front with Vedad Ibisevic partnering Dzeko.
The selection of Mechelen's Edin Cocalic as a holding midfielder was interpreted as a negative move to counteract Ireland's aerial approach.
Still, the mood around the stadium was positive at kick-off with the natives, the majority of whom were in situ 90 minutes before kick-off, creating quite a racket. Ireland failed to silence the din because of early indecision.
Despite a disciplined start at the back, uncertainty in possession further up the park created difficulty with skipper Glenn Whelan setting the wrong tone by giving the ball away.
By contrast, Roma playmaker Miralem Pjanic was an assured presence, even in an unlikely pairing with Cocalic, and the first chance fell his way when right full Toni Sunjic got away from Brady and squared for Pjanic, who shot over from the edge of the area. He had time to do better.
Ireland were struggling down the left side where Ward's lack of match sharpness was exposed and Brady unable to help. They were tormented by Turkey-based winger Edin Visca who posed problems without necessarily showing real conviction with his final touch. That said, Bazdarevic's charges didn't really give Darren Randolph too much to worry about.
There were some reasons for encouragement in the period before the interval as the previously subdued Wes Hoolahan came into the game more, supported by spirited showings from James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick.
Murphy put in a shift without getting much joy around the box where the hesitant Bosnians seemed unsure of themselves. A few nervous kicks from Asmir Begovic prompted murmurs from the stands and, with the thrown together pairing of Richard Keogh (below) and Ciaran Clark linking up effectively, O'Neill had reason to be pleased at the break given that sloppy passages had escaped punishment.
The dramatic half-time arrival of fog, which led to UEFA observers wondering if the rest of the game should be called off and rescheduled for today, meant that both benches and the bemused crowd were prevented from seeing the full picture of the second half. It added a chaotic element to proceedings and fears that the referee Felix Brych would have to call a halt. O'Neill hailed the German official's overall display, with the proliferation of valuable performers walking a tightrope all escaping a costly yellow.
As Ireland adjusted to the circumstances, they created an opening when Brady's run down the left was followed by a cross that Hendrick headed onto the roof of the net.
But it was Bosnia that threatened to break the deadlock with Ward's gloomy night continuing as Clark bailed him out by intercepting another centre arising from a Visca break.
O'Neill recognised the need for change around the hour mark and sprung James McClean from the bench instead of Hoolahan, pushing Brady in-field. It turned out to be a good call. "I thought Wes was getting tired and Brady could step into the position," explained the Derryman.
McClean was there to support Ward, but as Bosnia pushed O'Neill realised that the introduction of Marc Wilson was necessary to help that department, especially with Ward - the only player to be booked - running the risk of an early bath. Between those changes, the Balkans squandered an opportunity when Hendrick's attempted clearance came back off a blue shirt and put Senan Lulic through on goal; Randolph emerged to make himself big and pull off a vital stop.
The Bosnians roared their approval when the imposing Milan Djuric was sprung from the bench yet it was Ireland that struck the first blow with a fine individual goal from Brady that deserved a clearer view. His direct run through the centre of the park was followed by a neat flick of the heel to get away from Toni Sunjic that allowed the Norwich man to fire a left-footer past Begovic at his near post.
"I had a very foggy view but he did well," said O'Neill who asked his press conference if anyone had a better description.
At that juncture, the guests were hoping the chequered flag would appear in sight. Alas, they couldn't see out the win as sub Ognjen Vranjes darted into Wilson's territory and presented Dzeko with the image he'd craved for the entire game - a loose ball and a free shot at goal.
Ireland dug in for the final minutes to take a result they would have accepted beforehand back to Ballsbridge. The legacy of this mission will be determined by what happens next.