Sport Soccer

Thursday 23 February 2017

It wasn't pretty or comfortable but we are now in group driving seat

Trapattoni's troops secure vital victory with unconvincing display, writes John O'Brien

HOW comfortable was it? In truth, about as unsettling as a two-goal victory can get. Two history-making strikes by Robbie Keane were the difference.

They were quite possibly the only shots Ireland had on target in the Philip II Stadium in Skopje last night.

They shipped a penalty -- which was squandered -- and should have conceded another. They got away with it. This morning it will matter little that they didn't play particularly well.

Keane's goals came from nothing -- the first with the help of a wicked deflection, the second from a woeful piece of Macedonian defending. But they were wonderfully opportunistic and a fitting reward for the industry and leadership he had shown all night.

Keane's huge work rate might not have been a direct riposte to those whose enthusiasm for international football appeared to wane in recent weeks, but this result owed so much to spirit and organisation that it was hard to take it any other way.

Just as in Dublin in March, Ireland established an early two-goal advantage. The pattern, though, was markedly different.

Macedonia were spikier opponents this time, quicker out of the blocks, finding holes in a troubled Irish defence. They dominated possession and played brighter football and somehow found themselves trailing.

Gradually, the heart was sucked out of them. The mountain was too high to climb.

Over the years plenty have quibbled with Keane's goal-scoring record for Ireland, placing asterisks beside those scored against inferior opponents. His first goal last night took him to 50 in 108 games, one clear of Bobby Charlton.

While Keane hardly belongs in such exalted company, criticism of his record is beginning to wear thin.

Perhaps his staccato club career is, in one sense, a boon nowadays. The twilight of his international career could be full of rich promise.

When he scored his second with a neat finish following a dreadful error from Boban Grncarov, we wondered would Ireland defend their advantage with any sense of authority.

For more time than was comfortable they didn't.

Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews have always been Giovanni Trapattoni's first choice midfield pairing when fit, and the issues they bring were soon apparent.

The pair hung deep and manufactured little ball and, in the circumstances, Ireland could never be much of a creative force.

That was the root of Ireland's problems. Aiden McGeady and Stephen Hunt like to be busy players but with no possession they were peripheral players, mostly reduced to chasing shadows in front of a harried and stressed back four.

Simon Cox, a strange call ahead of Shane Long, worked hard alongside Keane and had a goal wrongly chalked off for offside, but work rate was the prerequisite for the evening.

Cox didn't really bring anything more than that. The loss of Richard Dunne was incalculable. It stands as a fine achievement for John O'Shea to have carved out a long and distinguished career at Manchester United, but there was never a time when the club viewed him as a central-defender or one that could lead the line.

Here O'Shea was asked to fulfil both of those roles in a makeshift defence that was under sustained pressure. It was a recipe for a long and anxious evening.

Time and again they were exposed. For all their weaknesses Macedonia have players up front who are technically proficient and can embarrass loose and nervous defences if the chance arises.

In both games between the countries Goran Pandev has been the best player on view.

The Inter playmaker isn't quick but he is accomplished on the ball and thoughtful with his runs and angles of attack.

Pandev couldn't have done more for his team. A shot in the 13th minute had brought out the best in Shay Given and, before the first half was out, he had earned his side a penalty that Ivan Trickovski sent crashing off the crossbar. Pandev should have had another when again hauled down by O'Shea in the area, but the referee wrongly waved play on.

With better officiating, O'Shea would have cost Ireland two penalties and shipped a red card. It was an evening when all the cards fell in their favour.

They won ugly. But ugly victories still confer three points and this team has been down-at-heel long enough to welcome such an outcome, regardless of how they arrived at it.

The difference between the point they probably would have settled for and the three they secured was huge.

Of the three teams huddled together on 13 points, Slovakia have unquestionably the hardest run-in.

Beat Slovakia in Dublin in September and Ireland will have a firm grip on at least the runners-up berth.

Achieve that and they could then travel to Moscow in an upbeat mood for the trickiest remaining task. Like the Derby jockey steering his horse down the hill towards Tattenham Corner, yesterday was all about securing a good position. Ireland will now feel they are in the driving seat.

Sunday Indo Sport

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