Elliot and McShane suffer in night of twists
Ireland 2 Slovakia 2
Another boring friendly? Not quite. In parts, this was almost too eventful for Martin O'Neill. With France looming over the horizon, these games could be described as damage limitation exercises, but the first half was all about damage.
Damage to Rob Elliot, who sustained a knee problem that could end his Euro 2016 ambitions. Shane Long doing damage by earning two penalties and then picking up a knock which led to the sensible decision to replace him at the break. And Paul McShane damaging his French prospects with an unwanted role in two Slovakian goals.
Inevitably, the entertainment levels dropped after the interval as multiple substitutions impacted on the quality of the fare. What went before threw up enough talking points to make this an above average exercise for this time on the international calendar. Wes Hoolahan's presence helped.
The attendance was 5,000 down on the alcohol influenced turn-out for the Good Friday date with Switzerland. Those punters who opted for the pub instead missed a better game with the first half a rollercoaster of emotion for the hosts.
O'Neill went with a positive formation that could well feature at France this summer, albeit with different personnel in certain areas. Eunan O'Kane came in for a second cap and took the Jeff Hendrick role next to James McCarthy in a midfield diamond with Glenn Whelan at the base and Hoolahan at the tip.
James McClean was used in a central role supporting Shane Long, a roving position that is normally filled by Jon Walters. He adapted well and linked up with Long for an early break that culminated with the West Brom player stinging the fingers of visiting stopper Matus Kozacik.
Going forward, Ireland were quite easy on the eye. "I thought we looked sharp," said O'Neill, "We played attractive football. Shane and James started strongly. We looked sharp with the two of them playing and Wes in behind. It does mean you might have extra body in midfield for possession."
At the back, O'Neill mixed things up with McShane, making his first start in this regime, on trial next to John O'Shea. Elliot was given a chance in goal to bring his Newcastle form to the international sphere. Disaster struck for both - to varying degrees - before the quarter hour mark.
Ireland defended high up the park and were caught as McShane's attempt to cut out a Slovakian break and put the ball out for a throw was too slow, allowing Erik Sabo to advance. He noticed that the blue shirts had a man over and used it, squaring for Miroslav Stoch who converted with his right foot. In his vain attempt to shift the weight of his body to save, Elliot twisted his right knee and went down in agony.
The medical prognosis will determine what it means for his season and the Euros but bad news is anticipated. "It's really cruel," said O'Neill. "It doesn't look good."
O'Neill sent for Darren Randolph ahead of David Forde, a disappointment for the latter and a reminder to the watching Shay Given that a window of opportunity is still there after a strange couple of days.
In response, Ireland continued to try and pass the ball with Bournemouth's O'Kane buzzing around in an attempt to make an impression. "Why wouldn't he be in my (Euros) thoughts?" said the manager. "He should be pleased with himself. One or two of the lads if they don't make the 23 are bang in line for the World Cup qualifiers."
He contributed to a frantic spell that led to the hosts being awarded a pair of penalties in the space of three minutes but it was Long's ability to make himself a nuisance that was the real inspiration.
Indeed, he turned a slightly overhit O'Kane pass into a good one by sprinting to get in just ahead of Kozacik and secure a dubious verdict. "Harsh," admitted O'Neill. Long dusted himself down to convert a 15th international goal.
Another boring friendly? Not quite. In parts, this was almost too eventful for Martin O'Neill.
With France looming over the horizon, these games could be described as damage limitation exercises, but the first half was all about damage.e restart, the Tipp flier convinced Norwegian official Ola Ober Nielsen that it was worth pointing to the spot again and his case was much stronger as he won a race with Martin Skrtel which predictably concluded with a misjudged challenge from the Liverpool man. McClean assumed the duties this time around and his left footer crept in.
The punters were enjoying proceedings. It also helped that Slovakia were happy to stand off for periods as opposed to pressing high up the park like Switzerland.
Still, they picked their moments to probe with numbers and restored parity just before the interval when Stephen Ward was caught out by a clever ball in behind that released roving right full Peter Pekarik - his speculative cross was inadvertently converted by the covering McShane who wanted the ground to swallow him up at this juncture.
That was frustrating for O'Neill yet of more concern was the sight of Long receiving treatment minutes beforehand. The only recognised striker in his matchday squad was never going to emerge for the restart and this caused the introduction of Robbie Brady with McClean pushing on. Alex Pearce was also rewarded for his presence with O'Shea replaced. McShane was kept on, determined to atone for earlier errors, and the ship was steadied.
"The second half was naturally disrupted," said O'Neill. "There were a lot of substitutions and the momentum was lost for both teams."
O'Kane featured for another 20 minutes and he always attempted a pass even if taking a liberty led to a Slovak counter and a tame shot that Randolph gathered.
Ireland missed Long and O'Neill rejigged his forward options across the half with Anthony Pilkington introduced as a central attacker and Brady dispatched to the left when the excellent Hoolahan made way for Aiden McGeady for the final quarter of an hour.
Cyrus Christie out-performed Ward in the battle of the replacement full backs and his dart and cross almost created a lead goal for Brady. Slovakia appeared happy with the draw and there would be no late twist.
At that stage, it suited all parties with the long summer in mind.
ROB ELLIOT - 6
A disastrous night for Elliot on his first Irish outing since 2014. Went down clutching his right knee as Stoch opened the scoring and now faces a break that could have disastrous implications for the rest of the season in terms of club and country.
CYRUS CHRISTIE - 7
The open nature allowed the Derby defender to showcase his ability to overlap and the real defensive issues were elsewhere. Not certain to go to France but did his prospects no harm with bright showing.
PAUL McSHANE - 5
A miserable first half for the Reading defender with an unfortunate role in both Slovakian goals. A better second half but he will fear the consequences – especially with Shane Duffy doing so well on Friday.
JOHN O’SHEA - 6
In and out of the Sunderland side recently and only played 45 minutes here. McShane was in the spotlight in terms of both goals but it was by no means a vintage defensive display all round. Centre-half is an intriguing department at the moment.
STEPHEN WARD - 5
Back in the side at Burnley and match-sharp but was caught on the hop by Slovakia as they broke through for the equaliser before the break. His French situation might revolve around O’Neill’s view of the versatile Marc Wilson and his thinking on Robbie Brady.
GLENN WHELAN - 6
Deployed in his usual role in front of the back four and centre-halves frequently split to allow him get on the ball. Made a couple of darts into opposition territory but his brief was mainly about facilitating others. It’s hard to see O’Neill picking a team without him come the summer.
EUNAN O’KANE - 7
Interesting that he was selected and, while he almost made a costly second-half error, he was confident and always looked to get on the ball. The Derryman is a tidy player and now an outside contender in the crowded race for midfield spots. Has set challenge to club-mate Harry Arter.
JAMES McCARTHY - 7
Made a difference on Friday and he seemed to be enjoying the first half as he was able to execute plenty of passes without being put under a huge amount of pressure. Suspicion lingers that he would be better in a deeper role but he never looked too flustered and did all right.
WES HOOLAHAN - 8
Spoke at the weekend about considering his international future in the summer and it would be crying shame if he packed it in. On this evidence he’s still Ireland’s most creative player – the midfield is better with Hoolahan in the picture.
JAMES McCLEAN - 8
Really lively showing in an unfamiliar role. Critics of McClean have described him as a one-trick pony but his old boss Stephen Kenny always felt that he could play through the centre. With O’Neill leaning away from using out-and-out wingers it’s a necessary attribute.
SHANE LONG - 8
The case for Long as the starting striker in France is strengthening with every passing week. Defenders hate playing against him and his pace gives referees persistent dilemmas. Replaced at the break because of injury scare.
MARTIN O’NEILL 7
Picked a positive team although adventure was punished for both goals. Faith in O’Kane justified.
Darren Randolph 5 for Elliot, 15 mins – A few ropey moments for O’Neill’s number one.
Robbie Brady 6 for Long, 45 mins – Effective in a variety of positions.
Alex Pearce 6 for O’Shea, 45 mins - Solid enough shift.
Anthony Pilkington 6 for O’Kane, 66 mins
Aiden McGeady 6for Hoolahan, 73 mins
Jonathan Hayes 6 for Ward, 79 mins