O'Neill at pains to stress positives after sorry display
Published 12/06/2014 | 02:30
IT was Robbie Keane who cut to the chase with his final comment as he prepared to depart the MetLife Stadium early yesterday morning.
PORTUGAL 5 IRELAND 1
"If we perform like that against anybody, then we're not going to do well," said the Irish skipper, who had to settle for a second-half cameo for this game as Martin O'Neill shuffled his options.
This was a hard game to watch from the sidelines for anyone of Irish persuasion, as Portugal tuned up for the World Cup in clinical fashion.
Analysis of the Irish display with a view to the Euro 2016 campaign comes with the important asterisk that only an implausible series of injuries, especially in the defensive department, would see O'Neill's selection reunited for a competitive fixture.
Nevertheless, the manner in which they performed was worrying in the context of assessing the strength in depth.
O'Neill, at pains to stress the positives, said afterwards that nerves were a factor in Ireland's wretched opening in front of a 46,063 crowd dominated by Portuguese supporters in jubilant mood for a fixture that coincided with their national holiday.
They received a present before kick-off when it emerged that Cristiano Ronaldo was fit enough to start this friendly match. He was able to coast through his personal warm-up as only the slippy, bumpy pitch provided the Real Madrid star real cause for worry.
He was prominent from the outset, although it was the strength of the collective which earned the Portuguese a three-goal lead at the interval.
The opener came in just the third minute when Stephen Ward, coming from a wedding in Italy to deputise for Marc Wilson, was caught out as Silvestre Varela crossed and the head of Hugo Almeida clinically dispatched.
Goal No 2 followed a quarter of an hour later when Ireland conceded cheap possession further up the field and Portugal broke, with left-full Fabio Coentrao's attempted cross hooked over the hapless David Forde by the outstretched boot of Richard Keogh.
O'Neill had selected a 4-2-3-1, with stand-in skipper Jon Walters up top and Wes Hoolahan in the hole between midfield and attack; the diminutive playmaker was Ireland's best player.
Alas, unlike the recent draw with Italy, the midfield pair of Jeff Hendrick and David Meyler were unable to really impose themselves on proceedings, although a few combative challenges from the latter did succeed in riling the crowd. But they didn't have to wait long for another celebration as Forde fumbled a Ronaldo header from a Varela cross and the moustached Almeida poked home the rebound.
"It was very tough going for us," admitted Ward. "They're ranked fourth in the world and there's a reason for that. When you come to the end of a season like this, you're going to be down to the bare bones and there were a few us out there struggling with knocks."
Ireland won three corners prior to the interval, but it was only after half-time words from O'Neill and Roy Keane that they finally tested Rui Patricio.
"The gaffer said to get on the front foot more," said Hoolahan. "We did in the first 20 minutes of the second half; we had them on the back foot."
His quick thinking created the Irish goal, a first international strike for James McClean, with the Dubliner spotting that the Portuguese were napping after Meyler was fouled. The swiftly-taken free made its way to the Derry native, who cut inside on his favoured left foot and smashed the ball into the bottom corner. "It was a spirited second half," enthused O'Neill.
A glut of substitutions halted the momentum and the fact that he was working with a top-heavy squad of attackers affected the Irish balance. Shane Duffy, the only defender listed in the subs, was actually unfit for action. When O'Neill had used all six replacements, Stephen Quinn was at left-back, Meyler at right-full and Kevin Doyle in central midfield.
The problem was that Portugal had hungry subs coming off the bench determined to make their case ahead of Germany next Monday. Ronaldo was given the biggest cheer of the evening when he departed, but his replacement, Nani, earned rapturous applause with some wonderful flicks, particularly for his leading role in a brilliant team goal that was chalked off by the offside flag.
Paulo Bento's charges did score twice in the final minutes, though, with O'Neill defending a slightly cavalier approach as he thought it more worthy to chase the game rather than shutting the shop for the 3-1 reverse.
"We tried to stay as positive as possible," he said.
Nani assisted both strikes, firstly picking out another sub, Vieirinha, who forced the ball past Forde when the stopper parried his initial header. The concluding goal stemmed from a broken down Irish attack at the other end, with Simon Cox running into trouble, red shirts advancing with impressive speed and the overlapping Coentrao racing into prime position to collect a Nani pass and slot into the bottom corner with a swagger.
Portugal – Patricio, Amorim (Veloso 81), Costa, Neto (Pepe 65), Coentrao, Carvalho, Meireles (A Almeida 65), Moutinho, Varela (Vierinha 72), H Almeida (Postiga 65), Ronaldo (Nani 65)
Ireland – Forde, Kelly (Doyle 76), Keogh, Pearce, Ward (Quinn 67), Hendrick, Meyler, McGeady (Cox 76), Hoolahan (Keane 63), McClean (Pilkington 67); Walters (Long 63)
Ref – B Toledo (USA)