Thursday 23 March 2017

Dion Fanning: Plenty of shadow play but mission accomplished in Bosnia for Ireland

Dion Fanning

Vedad Ibisevic (R) of Bosnia is challenged by Ciaran Clark
Vedad Ibisevic (R) of Bosnia is challenged by Ciaran Clark

After only 24 hours in Bosnia, it was hard not to think that if Ireland's qualifying campaign was to unravel, it could unravel in worse places.

Ireland might need to shake off these feelings of inadequacy that accompany the side wherever they go because there is a growing belief in the side.

When Robbie Brady put Ireland ahead with nine minutes to go, it felt as if something momentous was happening for this team again. That feeling lasted for only three minutes before Edin Dzeko equalised but a 1-1 draw gives Ireland the advantage before Monday's home leg.

Bosnia will not be without hope and that is how it should be. It doesn't take long to fall in love with this country. A walk through the beautiful old town of Sarajevo might do it. Certainly a conversation with anybody who remembers the war and talks you through the daily suffering which became normal while never being anything but brutal would certainly be enough.

This is a country that has suffered. On the road out of Sarajevo towards Zenica, there is a cemetery overlooking the Olympic Stadium where those who died in the war are buried. One of the plots was once the training ground for FK Sarajevo but now it is the resting place for some who were killed in that terrible war.

Bosnia's team have been affected by the conflict and they play knowing that, in a small way, what they achieve can bring some joy to a country that knows enough about misery.

Zenica bustled last night with a timeless energy, a sense of a big occasion but nothing else. Flares exploded in the hours before kick off but the home crowd was expectant and excited not hostile.

In the Internacional Hotel beside the ground, waitresses pushed food around on trolleys while men smoked happily in the restaurant. The wood-panelled doors and marble staircases gave the impression we were happily ensconced in 1975.

Last year Bosnia reached their first World Cup and this was their opportunity to take a big step towards a European Championship for the first time in their history.

The Bilino Polje Stadium was said to have an intimidating atmosphere but there was nothing to fear from the crowd and in the opening minutes there was little to fear on the pitch as Ireland started brightly.

There is a simple if maybe simplistic method of guessing Martin O'Neill's intentions when he names his side and that is to see if Wes Hoolahan is present.

Some wondered if he would be rested for the home game but there he was, even if he spent the opening ten minutes trying vainly to get on the ball.

Ireland played for much of the game without ambition and notions like away goals seemed to be only for incurable romantics until Brady picked up the ball late in the game and changed everything.

Play-offs have been unkind on Bosnia too but it was easy to see why they had struggled as Ireland found space in midfield. Ireland would then demonstrate why they had struggled by giving the ball away.

While players sometimes can't rise to the occasion, this was an instance of a game itself not matching the event as both sides demonstrated that the European Championships were probably better without teams who finished third getting a chance to qualify.

Of course, the longer it was a game without purpose, the better it was for Ireland. Martin O'Neill's message to his players all week had been a simple one: make sure the tie isn't over when you fly out of Sarajevo this morning.

Bosnia had their own anxieties and they seemed to be thinking along similar lines. There may have been an opportunity to get things done last night but they have learned in play-offs before how things can fall to pieces.

Probings

For most of the night, the game was an example of how a first leg can so often be an exercise in shadow play, 90 minutes of probing and posture before the real business begins.

Bosnia's probings were more incisive in the first half as Edin Visca toyed with Stephen Ward down the left.

An away goal would have been a great asset for Ireland but they rarely threatened and it was until the second half that Hoolahan managed a first shot on target.

Ireland appeared to want a clean sheet and nothing else but Visca's domination of Ward was so conclusive that Ireland were in trouble every time the ball went down that side and Bosnia made sure it went down that side every time.

At half-time, the game was scoreless and there had been no unravelling by Ireland, even if there hadn't been much ravelling either.

During the interval one Bosnian journalist remarked that he hadn't seen a team play as defensively since Andorra had come to town.

In the second half, seeing how anyone was playing was difficult as the smog that chokes the citizens of this mining town settled on the pitch. It was hard to tell what was happening on the far side of the pitch but precedent suggested not much.

Ciaran Clark was unaffected as he continued to be the main obstacle when Bosnia attacked although Darren Randolph did well to save from Senad Lulic.

Dangerous

Things seemed more dangerous in the mist as Bosnians emerged as if from nowhere to threaten the Irish goal. Reports also reached us that Jeff Hendrick had gone close at the far end but they remained unconfirmed.

Ireland's game was based on discipline and there was a concern that things were now chaotic, that the game had been fractured and divided between those who could be seen and those who were unseen.

Then, somewhere in the distance, Brady went on a run, steadied himself and drove the ball into the net. Ireland had an unlikely away goal and we could see clearly now.

Dzeko's equaliser changed things but Ireland knew they had done what they set out to do and a little bit more. Bosnia will have to score at the Aviva but they won't be without hope. Only the churlish would begrudge them that.

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