Fresh faces need more time to grow
THE fifth defeat out of eight games during a disappointing year for Ireland, but there were more positives to take from this than any of the others.
Glenn Whelan had suggested earlier in the week that Giovanni Trapattoni would come under pressure again in the event of a loss, yet the biggest criticism you could make of the Italian is a familiar old chestnut: why did it take him so long to instigate the changes that give supporters a few reasons to be optimistic about 2013?
The brightest spark here, Seamus Coleman, watched Euro 2012 from a bar in Donegal, and Wes Hoolahan, a half-time introduction, should have been integrated long before this fixture.
We can only hope that when the manager has all his options available, there will be room for their invention.
After all, the masterclass from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Sweden demonstrated the quality that Ireland will face in March. The intensity of that qualifier will be a couple of notches up from a typically stop-start November friendly.
The first-half goal from Greece attacker Jose Holebas proved the difference, and this outcome means that Ireland's world ranking is likely to slip into the 40s – in or around the region they inhabited when Trapattoni was appointed in early 2008.
In time, this fixture may be viewed as a stepping stone in the right direction if some of the lessons are taken on board. While some of the fresh faces demonstrated inexperience, they need further time to grow into the international sphere, and February's friendly showdown with Poland represents another avenue for that evolution. If the manager is willing to experiment again, a few more fans might show up.
The empty seats around the ground told their own story, with Michel Platini ironically on show to recognise the quality of Irish support in Poland. An eyebrow-raising figure of 20,070 was given as the official attendance.
Before those who turned up had taken their choice of seat, the natives could have been awarded a penalty. The flight of Stephen Ward's powerful cross was misjudged by Greek left-full Konstantinos Stafylidis, who clearly hand-balled under no pressure. Referee Eitan Shmuelevitz gave him the benefit of the doubt; on a competitive night, there would have been uproar.
"Everyone saw it," said Trapattoni. "Maybe it was too early."
Minutes later, Shane Long had another shout shortly after with a purposeful burst that arose from a commanding run and pass from Ciaran Clark, who instantly warmed to the task at centre-half. Again, the ref was unimpressed as the West Brom attacker went down.
Still, the promising interchange lifted the mood of the home side and, with their team pinging the ball around nicely, they had plenty of reason to be encouraged.
The right-flank partnership of Coleman and Robbie Brady was particularly lively, and they combined with a quick one-two that culminated in a Coleman cross that Simon Cox really should have converted. With James McClean making forays down the left, albeit slightly let down by his final ball, the purposeful start justified the decision to enter the fray with a youthful side keen to make an impression.
The Greeks were slow to warm to the task, clearly unwilling to press high up the park like other visiting teams have to good effect at this venue. It helped, of course, that the green shirts were also more assured in possession.
However, a nasty blow to the head sustained by Georgios Samaras effectively spurred the visitors into life. They worked hard with a man less while he received treatment, and maintained a higher tempo upon his return. Suddenly, Irish players weren't finding it as easy to wander into space.
Just short of the half-hour mark, the Greeks delivered a warning shot when Sotiris Ninis spun away from Stephen Ward and tested David Forde – a late call-up to the starting XI after Keiren Westwood's groin flared up.
Greece sensed opportunity, however, and capitalised on indecision in the spine of the home ranks. A ponderous Irish midfield toiled in the build-up, and it was too easy for Konstantinos Mitroglou and Samaras to tee up Jose Holebas who turned away from O'Shea and unleashed a right-footer with an accuracy that eluded Forde. Perhaps the Irish lethargy in that period could be attributed to Glenn Whelan suffering a recurrence of a hamstring problem, which led to his early withdrawal; Keith Andrews came into the fray.
He was part of a mini-rally before the interval that featured a Brady snap-shot from a Long lay-off and another shout for a penalty when McClean's path was blocked by Kyriakos Papadopulous in the messy afters of the subsequent corner.
As promised, the half-time brought overdue involvement for Hoolahan, who was introduced along with another League of Ireland graduate, Kevin Doyle. They became the 1-1 in the 4-4-1-1 with Brady and Long withdrawn, the latter presumably on club advice. Cox switched to the left, with McClean cutting in from the right and involved in another sprightly period which finished with another penalty cry as Doyle was shoved aside in a scramble to collect a James McCarthy shot that Orestis Karnezis unconvincingly parried.
Hoolahan's clever link play was apparent in his approach to an encounter that was now frequently interrupted by substitutions. Alas, while the hosts worked themselves into promising positions, composure was absent from the final touch. Quickly taken set-pieces from the training ground might have reaped reward, with a short Hoolahan free towards Andy Keogh – a replacement for Cox – eventually deflected into the path of Ward who flapped when there was time to do better. On the sideline, Trapattoni raged at the wasted opportunity.
Coleman, a worthy Man of the Match, continued to show ambition as McClean, who figured well immediately after the resumption, began to frustrate with some poor decisions in the final third. The boos at the final whistle were nothing to compare with the reaction to Germany last month, but they illustrate the suspicion that still exists about the road ahead.