Ireland on ropes and hurtling towards play-offs
Published 03/09/2011 | 05:00
And so the box office bout.
After the elbow-nudging, shadow boxing that represented the opening skirmishes of this qualifying campaign, this represented the sternest test of Ireland's vaulting aspirations.
Do not let the late, deceitful assault on Slovakia's goal fool you. Instead, remember the jeers that evicted a battered team from what is supposed to be their home.
Ireland ended upon the ropes, bloodied and cowed, their hopes now certainly hurtling towards the unfamiliar certainty of the dreaded play-offs. Their manager's rigidity once more lampooned in Ireland's front room.
Ireland, sadly outplayed and out-thought. We wondered should we have expected anything different, really.
Was Ireland's a vaulting ambition of unsustainable means or a verifiable aim backed by justified expectations from their devotedly loyal supporters?
Could Ireland's players retrieve the heavy air of anticipation and fill their lungs with the requisite confection of skill and determination required to thwart a familiarly stubborn opponent?
The talismanic appearance of Jason McAteer on the heaving sidestreets in the hour before kick-off reminded us all of that special day, 10 years and two days ago, when his goal put the Dutch to the sword and Ireland to their fourth, and last, major tournament.
Russia's earlier, fortuitous winner in a single-goal victory against Macedonia heightened the suspicion that this evening represented a virtual play-off for a tilt at the group leader's often uncertain supremacy.
Ireland's expensively recruited manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, had unleashed a clarion call for incision, not indecision, to stamp its authority
from the opening bell.
Predominantly better served playing away from home due to their innate conservatism, something had to give when Ireland confronted a team constructed almost as a mirror image, if not in structure, than in philosophy.
But last night called for more than the abstract; Ireland's supporters demanded feral desire and immediate intensity. Organisation and spirit, prerequisites of an Ireland team in the first instance, needed to be garlanded with something a little more substantial.
We needed more than mere dutiful adherence to a system. Construction, not destruction. It was too forlorn a hope. Ireland, on paper, were clearly the better team. However, grass has often leavened the odds towards enthusiastic, but limited opponents in recent times.
There was no early, defining statement from Ireland. No Overmars figure to be scythed down to offer succour to the green gladiators. All the recycled media-friendly garbage spouted all week about confidence was rendered redundant by an inability to impose themselves on the game in any fashion, or to utilise possession with an iota of conviction.
Instead, an uneasy rhythm established itself. Slovakia were easy on the eye, the hamstring Hamsik a threatening itinerant; Ireland content to hit it long down the channels, or else counter-attack, as is their wont.
Crossing opportunities were forgone with alacrity and Slovakia were allowed the gradual liberty of realising that they would be afforded the chance to play the game as much on their terms as they would have hoped.
A hapless pass from Keith Andrews, then a comical slip, allowed Slovakia the first real chance, but manager Vladimir Weiss' son of the same name will doubtless be grounded after his weak effort. Suddenly, though, Ireland were penned in. So much so, that Robbie Keane was waving his team frantically forward as early as the first quarter; seconds later, the hopelessly isolated player was flagged offside a boot lace into the opposition half.
A fruitless bicycle kick was, well, pure Hollywood. Slovakia were the team creating chances with chilling ease. Trapattoni's system was creaking. For those of you watching in black and white, the home team were wearing blue.
Where before Doyle struggled manfully on the edge of the box, now he was working tirelessly for scraps with his back 40 metres from goal. Undistinguished offerings from Ireland's wide men heightened the unease.
That Stephen Ward was Ireland's best player vividly illustrated the alarm. Slovakia's holding duo and Hamsik were eluding Ireland's midfield, so much so, that their nominal holding player, Juraj Kucha, gambolled upfield with abandon.
When space was confined, they maximised the resulting acreage elsewhere; Ireland repeatedly sent their bodies into confined, wide attacking spaces, from which the gleeful Slovakians predominantly exited safely.
When Ireland did manage a one-on-one with a full-back, Damien Duff combined with Keith Andrews for Ireland's opening effort on target; Slovakia's immediate return upfield hinted that they were haughtily unmoved.
They switched the ball from touchline to touchline with subconscious ease, Ireland struggled to move the ball five metres. At half-time, Ireland were well behind on points, lucky to be even, the half-time tea greeted with thinly concealed relief.
The sad reflection as punters sipped their half-time brews rested on the vague consolation that this Slovakian team were an average outfit, made to look rather more than decent by familiarly recurring deficiencies in attitude and assurance.
The pitch was watered at half-time; we wondered whether the cold water of reality would wash over the heads of the startled Ireland players -- or whether a brain worth €1.7m could alter the script; albeit, one that he himself has grimly carved in stone.
Ireland opened with renewed intent, but a couple of half-hearted penalty attempts were indicative of the night's sense of desperation; their best passing movement, six passes, made a total of one yard before a predictable long ball disappeared into the ether.
Slovakia's siege seemed relentless; in fact, it wasn't. It was just that Ireland's feeble, fractured responses were so pithy.
Duff offered a glorious defiance to the malaise that so afflicted team-mates like Doyle, O'Shea and McGeady; it was almost a one-man crusade against the mediocrity in which he was slowly drowning. For once, the twin midfield figurines were not entirely culpable.
Sean St Ledger's wonderful block on the hour maintained parity by the width of a cigarette paper. Doyle, so often heroic, departed with head stooped, his muted performance a mystery. Trapattoni's original decision to omit him, perhaps, had been correct.
McGeady's retention was even more mysterious; Dunne's foul mouth a visceral response in the wrong direction as his team continued to sleepwalk.
This was a night to reveal character. When the marvellous Duff did create a clear opening, Ireland's rudderless captain fluffed his lines. Simon Cox whizzed wide with a shot.
Meanwhile, the clock, now Ireland's only friend, ticked with lazy reluctance. We waited, belatedly, for Stephen Hunt's zaniness to unleash the latent fire within his team. We should have known there wasn't one.