Inspirational Dunne helps to ride storm
FROM Russia with luck.
Ireland rode a storm here to keep their European Championship hopes alive. The play-off -- or even the outside chance of winning the group -- that could keep Giovanni Trapattoni in a job remains a distinct possibility, and the Italian can thank Richard Dunne if that situation comes to pass.
The big Dubliner lost his shirt, survived a nasty smack off concrete and ended the game with his number written on a reserve jersey with a felt-tipped pen. As if there could have been a dispute over his identity, he was the one stopping everything.
Dunne was immense on a night when another player who had barely trained in the preliminaries, Shay Given, confirmed his enduring class. Around them, a patched-up and rigid Irish rearguard survived this game of Russian roulette.
The hosts bossed the game from the outset and the Irish bench were incapable of altering the script. As the minutes elapsed, the Russian spirit waned, frustrated by the visitors' ability to live on the edge and remain unscathed.
By hanging on for a scoreless draw, Trapattoni's men extended their record- breaking clean-sheet run to seven games. Indeed, it is 679 minutes since they have conceded a goal; these 90 minutes dragged in comparison with the others.
Allied with the incredible result in Slovakia last night, Ireland's prospects of making the finals now look stronger than anyone could have imagined after last Friday's debacle.
"I think it's impossible not to recognise that we have been lucky," said Trapattoni, who emerged afterwards with a smile.
"Physically, they were superior to us, and they had a rhythm which we don't have. Thank God we had Richard Dunne. The senior players had a determination that was a pull for the other players. We have overtaken a big obstacle tonight and, now, we have two games to play for qualification."
Nevertheless, the 72-year-old acknowledged it was one of the most fortunate nights in his long career in management, citing a 1977 UEFA Cup win with Juventus as the only comparable escape. He suggested St Patrick might have been looking down on him.
A bemused Dick Advocaat also went with the religious theme, insinuating that God was against Russia on an evening where he was otherwise satisfied with his team's display.
"I can only applaud my players," he said. "We did everything but score."
It was tense throughout, yet the real pain was in the first half. That Ireland were level at the break was something approaching a miracle. Trapattoni will point out that the hosts created only three clear-cut chances, yet when you add the space they were given to shoot from distance and the territorial domination, parity was remarkable.
Advocaat had sprung something of a surprise by deploying Yuri Zhirkov on the left wing, with Aleksei Berezutskiy dispatched to left-back to give Damien Duff close attention. With Andrey Arshavin on the right wing of an extremely fluid 4-2-3-1, the hosts left Ireland in a spin with their quick movement.
Stephen Ward suffered. With Arshavin meandering away from his berth, the Wolves defender too often found himself in limbo. Russian right-full Aleksandr Anyukov was effectively operating as a second right-winger, pressing Aiden McGeady into the role of Ireland's second left-back. The pressure was persistent; Kevin Doyle was lively in the early stages but, as the half developed, the white shirts were unable to keep hold of the ball.
The Russians alternated between building the play slowly and probing diagonal balls that troubled Ward and the other Irish full-back, Stephen Kelly. Dunne and Darren O'Dea were operating like bouncers, protecting the front door while a crowd of red-clad customers rushed in their direction. Behind them, Given stood tall.
He set the tone for his evening with a finger-tip stop to deny Arshavin. That came from a situation where Russia's lone striker, Aleksandr Kerzhakov, used his pace to work the channels and stretch the Irish. He did the same shortly afterwards, teeing up Igor Semshov, who once more called Given into action.
However, the veteran stopper was powerless in the 33rd minute. Zhirkov darted inside, eluded a posse of opponents, and fed Semshov. Last Friday's goalscorer calmly slotted the ball past Given but hadn't accounted for Dunne, who had been outfoxed by Zhirkov, tracking back and sliding across the plastic surface to retrieve the ball before it crossed the line. Stunning. Semshov was shellshocked.
Duff cleared a Sergei Isnashevich flick to safety from his station at the back post from another Russian corner shortly after a Zhirkov delivery had rebounded from the post. It was relentless and Ireland could barely catch a breath. Every stoppage was welcomed as a chance to regroup, and the half-time whistle was gratefully received by the travelling supporters.
It was better thereafter, but only just. Scares were frequent. Dunne picked up where he left off, with a dart across the box and block that was reminiscent of Paul McGrath in the Giants Stadium. Nevertheless, Semshov subsequently slipped into a gaping hole. Unfathomably, he opted to pass to nobody rather than shooting. The Luzhniki Stadium faithful howled in disgust.
Trapattoni stubbornly kept his shape, eschewing the temptation to go with an extra man in midfield. Simon Cox came in for Doyle, and Stephen Hunt for McGeady. Both acquitted themselves well in defending from the front. In fact, they each put in a decent delivery that Keane didn't expect; the skipper also headed wildly off target when it seemed that stand-in Russian goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev might actually be tested.
Mostly, he was a spectator to the Dunne show. The 31-year-old was almost knocked unconscious when he unceremoniously bumped Zhirkov off the pitch and onto the running track. For his troubles, he sustained a nasty blow to the temple, which bled to the extent that he required four stitches and had to change his shirt. The Irish bench had forgotten to bring the reserve to the sideline. German referee Felix Brych refused to let him continue with a numberless garment until, eventually, a convincing five was drawn on the back by goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly. "Richard sacrificed himself to get back on the pitch," admitted Trapattoni.
After that, it was a case of hanging tight. Everton's Dimitar Bilyaletindov was sprung into action and squandered a pair of opportunities. Then, as the game ticked towards injury time, a Konstantin Zyranov header was expertly blocked by the feet of the sprawling Given. As Semshov followed up, Andrews valiantly stuck out a leg and the great escape was complete.
Russia -- Malafeev, Anyukov, Ignashevich, V Berezutskiy, A Berezutskiy, Zyranov, Shirokov, Arshavin, Semshov, Zhirkov (Bilyaletdinov 75), Kerzhakov (Pavlyuchenko 53).
Ireland -- Given, Kelly, O'Dea, Dunne, Ward, McGeady, Whelan, Andrews, Duff (Hunt 67), Keane, Doyle (Cox 59).
Ref -- F Brych (Germany).