Song remains the same so don't expect O'Neill to change chorus
Boring the opposition into submission gets results for Ireland but it's not easy on the eye
Published 09/10/2016 | 17:00
You'd have expected that at some stage in Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign a repeat of the performances produced against Germany in the Euro qualifiers would be necessary. You know the kind of thing, defending in depth against technically superior opposition, surrendering territory and trying to hit them on the break, some last-ditch stuff in the final ten minutes.
What you probably wouldn't have expected was that this type of display would come in a home match against Georgia. But maybe we should have. There was a Groundhog Day feel to this hairy night with Georgia even if it was prefaced by Martin O'Neill listening to the National Anthem rather than Bill Murray waking to 'I Got You Babe'.
As had been the case on Georgia's last visit to Dublin just 13 months ago, the visitors knocked the ball around with sufficient facility to convince you they must have been unfairly written off in the previews. But the lads from Uncle Joe Stalin's old bailiwick really are minnows, a record of four wins from their previous 25 competitive matches a fair indication of their international standing.
And those players who looked so good weaving their pretty attacking patterns? Their pedigrees aren't as impressive as Ireland made them look. Valerian Gvilia, who ran midfield for long stretches, plays his football with BATE Borisov, so convincingly beaten by Dundalk in the Champions League. Dundalk, with perhaps a few reinforcements from Cork City, would be a decent bet to beat the Georgian side who ran rings round for Ireland for so long on Thursday night.
It would be stretching it to claim Georgia were unlucky not to get something from the game. In the final analysis the results of football matches generally depend on what happens in the penalty areas. For all their creative endeavour Georgia are lightweight in the opposition box and prone to flakiness in their own. Seamus Coleman's goal, which was kind of Maradona v England crossed with a pushover try, may have come as a relief but it was hardly a surprise. As had been the case last year, you fancied Ireland to stumble through in the end.
It was about a boring a sporting spectacle as you could imagine but this will hardly bother Martin O'Neill. Aesthetic considerations have never been high on the Ireland manager's list of priorities. His team has had the happy knack of doing just what is required for the particular occasion and you can expect something similar tonight. The match will probably be as ugly as the state of the Moldovan economy yet Ireland should come away with another three points in the bank.
Thursday night's draw between Austria and Wales is a good result if you think Ireland are competing to win the group and a bad one if you think our best hope is a runners-up spot and a play-off. Take your pick. But all this talk about Ireland as being in some way equal to Wales seems to ignore the facts that Chris Coleman's side went two rounds further than us in Europe, beat a Belgian side who outclassed us, have Gareth Bale and play a more sophisticated brand of football than we do. Wales were 11th in percentages of passes completed at the Euros, we were 21st. They were able to take the game to the hosts in Vienna in a way Ireland are unlikely to repeat next month.
The drawbacks of the Irish approach are most evident in the way that every game has come to seem like a cruel practical joke being played on Shane Long. In the lead-up to the European Championships there were confident predictions that the Southampton striker was poised to reproduce his excellent club form at international level. Long, it seemed, would be our secret weapon.
Instead he hardly got a kick in France and on Thursday night was once more reduced to a serial pursuer of lost causes. It's like watching a dog chasing a stick in the garden - you admire the energy but you can't help wondering what he's getting out of it.
Our song remains the same. Invoking James McCarthy's lay-off as absolution for his underwhelming performance ignores the fact that it was no different from every other display he's given for Ireland. The only justification for Stephen Ward at left-back is that otherwise Robbie Brady would have to play there. Jeff Hendrick's performance made you wonder if O'Neill might have done a Gay Future on it and sneaked in a ringer at the Euros.
Still, Seamus Coleman continues to find ways to increase his influence as our one world-class player. His dashes down the right were our most effective attacking weapon on the night and may remain so for a while. Jon Walters showed what a loss he was in France, the scrappy, hustling nature of Ireland's play seeming to suit him far better than it does Long.
Meanwhile, James McClean's thunderous diving header for a disallowed goal and a couple of soaring leaps at the back post showed, not for the first time, an aerial prowess which made you wonder if he might prosper as a centre-forward on a team which likes to pump balls into the box.
Martin O'Neill presides over as aesthetically unpleasing a team as there is in Europe. There's no reason to watch them unless you're Irish. And there's not much to enjoy except the result. In this respect Thursday night was almost an emblematic Irish performance. It'll do for now. It'll have to.
Sunday Indo Sport