Ireland pay penalty for Keane's low confidence
When Robbie Keane was presented with a chance to secure Ireland a priceless win with time ticking ominously towards a sterile resolution of this contest, his response was in keeping with a night of despair for the Irish captain.
Just as he had done with a first-half penalty, generously afforded to his team, Ireland's record goalscorer fluffed his lines. Giovanni Trapattoni's main task when qualification resumes will be to sternly address Keane's worrying lack of touch and miserable self-confidence.
And so the script remains the same. Parity in Slovakia retains the status quo and will only slightly deafen the clarion calls for the manager to broaden his ambitions and propagate a more pliable approach.
A point gained for Ireland, two lost for Slovakia. The accountancy will brighten the mood within the camp. But the same concerns will continue to be aired about Trapattoni's methods and his stringent selection policy.
Sporadic signs of renewed life were apparent here but an unseemly squabble for second remains the height of this team's ambitions. This game, against moderate opposition, offered a microcosm of Trapattoni's Ireland; they could do so much better.
The Irish team bus had only a matter of yards to cover from their Holiday Inn base in central Zilina to the Pod Dubnon Stadium. We wondered whether the route back to respectability after last Friday's humbling lesson would be quite as convenient.
Only positive action could obviate negative reaction.
We needed an early sign. On Friday, Shay Given hoofed the ball long a scarcely credible 29 times. That's almost once every three minutes, a considerable exercise in myopia given Russia's hegemony of possession.
Playing away offers this Irish team under their rigid manager a home away from home. Paradoxically, one would expect them to play more football as Bari, Sofia and Paris demonstrated during the last campaign. The hoary old principles of silencing the opposition -- requiring one to maintain possession -- are not lost on Trapattoni.
As the neon red clock marked the ending of the first minute, John O'Shea hared down the right wing with an abandon sorely lacking last week; then a Given hoof betrayed the knife-edge upon which this team must operate.
Keane dropped deep, an attempt to promote continuity, but the ruse was undermined by imprecision from, again, Paul Green and Sean St Ledger as passes went familiarly astray.
The frayed nerves were rudely punctured by some crunching challenges on both sides; with Russia now 1-0 up in Macedonia, this was bearing all the classic hallmarks of a race to the play-offs.
The deliverance from sterility hauled a significant weight from their shoulders and, as in Armenia, Keith Fahey's role was pivotal in the goal, decorating the composure of a fine opening quarter of an hour. His sublime free-kick heightened the impression that panic assaults this Slovakian defence when danger menaces. In an instant, the Slovaks were transmuted into clownish figures and, amid the maelstrom, St Ledger pounced calmly.
Ireland began to play in little triangles, pushing deeper as the Slovaks struggled to emerge as a serious force, Fahey and Keane made the 'keeper work and the home side were reduced to long-range, wayward drives, missions of futility.
The crowd's whistles were sweet music to the Irish, Trapattoni's whistles an endorsement of the prevailing serenity.
Except this frail side cannot maintain such a seamless state. Gaping chasms on the left side, even if the clumsy Slovaks struggled to find them, served to nibble at the Irish supporters' confidence.
Aiden McGeady and Glenn Whelan were slipshod and a cross from this area only required a touch for a leveller. When parity arrived, Ireland's fallibility at a set-piece cost Whelan and Ireland dear.
Ireland's frail confidence was amplified by Keane's penalty miss, an appalling dereliction of professional duty, the poverty of his strike and his underwhelming body language standing out in stark contrast to the academic effort stroked home so efficiently last Friday.
His striking compatriot, the pacey and abrasive Shane Long, was dominating the partnership. Even before the penalty, Keane had abandoned his deep-lying role, so frustrated seemingly with his poor touch and inability to link.
Irish hearts were heavy at half-time. Events dictate mood and Trapattoni would have been required to reassert his confidence in the better tasting elements of their opening half's Curate's Egg.
The suspicion that the pendulum had swung grew imperceptibly. McGeady ran down an all-too-familiar blind alley, his team-mates followed in the early skirmishes, John O'Shea delivering an dreadful cross straight to touch when unoccupied down the right.
Richard Dunne faltered at the back and allowed Stanislav Sestak to block Given's desperate clearance; the ball spun to safety but Ireland spun worryingly into a familiar state of chassis.
With Darron Gibson already on for Green, there was little room to manoeuvre a decisive alteration from the bench. One striker and four defenders represented the paucity of options available to the manager, a damning indictment of his obstinacy when it comes to player selection.
The only caveat remained Slovakia's ineptitude. Marek Hamsik was their talisman but swanned around with all the self-indulgence expected of a man sporting a ridiculously vain Mohican.
Slovakia's need was greater, hence the reinforcements from the bench as the game drifted uneasily into the final quarter, just as Tomas Hubocan reminded us that the home side can attain fitful degrees of excellence with a stinging test of Given's fingertip reflexes.
The talismanic Miroslav Stoch arrived, a locksmith attempting to extricate something from an increasingly tightening defence yet one which paradoxically always seems one slip away from implosion.
As they seemed to tire, Slovakia sought to pounce as the game switched their way once more, albeit with little penetrative impact. Like Ireland, they are dominated by mediocrity.
While Ireland dominated possession and territory, the game grew a death-like sterility. It was football's equivalent of a staring competition. Nobody blinked.