Video: Reality check for Martin O'Neill as Ireland are well beaten by Portugal
FOR Portugal, this was a confidence booster en route to Brazil. For Ireland, it served as a reality check heading into the summer.
Portugal 5 Ireland 1
Over the next five weeks, Ireland fans will watch the world's best go to battle in South America and this exercise illustrated the gulf between contenders and pretenders.
Granted, Portugal are operating at full strength with the greatest show on earth around the corner whereas this was the last match of a long campaign for a depleted Irish group, especially in the defensive department. The makeshift back four selected for this New Jersey drubbing will never start a qualifying match of any consequence.
Nevertheless, the manner in which the World Cup bound side tore apart Martin O'Neill's charges will give the Derryman plenty to think about as he plots a course towards September's Euro 2016 qualifiers. The loss extended his winless run to six games, the longest for any boss since Mick McCarthy went through a barren spell in 1997/98.
"I'm not disheartened," insisted O'Neill afterwards. "It was a very, very tough game for us but it's also a game that I wanted us to participate in.
"This is what it's all about, playing some of the best players in the world heading to the World Cup. It's a big test, but something you have to experience. We're going to face some very difficult matches in September, and this is preparation for that regardless of the margin of defeat."
In front of 46,063 fans at the impressive Metlife Stadium, it looked grim for Ireland from the opening seconds.
Cristiano Ronaldo, whose presence in the starting XI thrilled the Portugese dominated crowd celebrating their natjonal holiday, skipped away from a posse of pursuers before taking aim with a shot that was claimed by David Forde. That was a signal for the onslaught that was to come.
The aforementioned defensive quartet of Stephen Kelly, Alex Pearce, Richard Keogh and Stephen Ward all ply their trade in the Championship, and they were exposed by a top level attack that showed little mercy.
The clock had just ticked into the third minute when Portugal grabbed the lead and it was ridiculously easy for Paulo Bento's men as Porto's Silvestre Varela galloped into Ward's territory and sent over a cross that was dispatched by the head of Besitkas attacker Hugo Almeida.
Ward had come back from holidays to step in for the injured Marc Wilson, but he endured a difficult time of it in the opening minutes as red shirts moved the ball too quickly for an Irish team that was struggling in its attempt to keep possession and getting into trouble in their own half. "I thought we started nervously," conceded O'Neill.
The 62-year-old had selected a 4-2-3-1 with Robbie Keane on the bench and Wes Hoolahan in the hole between midfield and attack. However, 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 favourites.
With an eye to Brazil, the real danger for Bento's side were the slippery pitch at the Metlife Stadium as the grass surface laid on top of an artificial covering was causing uneven bounces and catching out players unexpectedly with Ronaldo scaring his nation by twice losing his balance.
Otherwise, the Portugese were finding this to be a stress-free workout and their second goal, just shy of the 20th minute mark, was the product of a slick move that culminated with a Fabio Coentrao cross receiving a deflection off the luckles Keogh that carried it over Forde and into the back of the net.
"The goals we gave away came from our own possession," reflected O'Neill. "These are the type of things we have to try and cut out from our game."
Ireland tried to mount a response and did forge three corners, yet Portugal prevented their goalkeeper Rui Patricio from undergoing serious examination with a header from stand-in skipper Jon Walters the only Irish effort on target before the interval
The opposition cruelly reminded them how to be clinical by notching a third, although a Forde howler contributed significantly with the Millwall stopper fumbling a Ronaldo header straight into the path of the grateful Almeida who did the rest. Another right wing cross from Varela was the original source.
Ireland's players didn't linger too long in the dressing room at half time and did come out with renewed purpose which led to the reduction of the deficit in the seventh minute. Quickly taken free kicks are a feature of the new regime, especially with Hoolahan on the pitch, and the playmaker responded to a foul on Meyler by creating the opportunity for James McClean to cut inside on his left foot and fire home his first international strike.
That was followed by a reasonable spell where the green shirts kept the ball a little better, with Hoolahan again impressive. It finished proceedings on a positive note for the original XI as O'Neill made a flood of changes after the hour mark with Keane, Shane Long, Anthony Pilkington, Stephen Quinn, Kevin Doyle and Simon Cox coming into the fray and Hoolahan amongst the departed.
Portugal reshuffled as well with the departing Ronaldo given the biggest cheer of the evening. Quinn came in at left back with Ward carrying an injury, and Meyler was dispatched to right back when Kelly was withdrawn giving an extremely attacking flavour to the final quarter as the match became a bit more stretched. Doyle was utilised as a central midfielder, an unfamiliar station.
"If we close up shop and don't allow them to score goals then 3-1 sounds ok," explained O'Neill, "But we tried to stay in the match, stay as positive as possible. When they changed things around, they still had very good players. We were chasing the game for the last two goals."
The patched together operation was caught out when Nani, sprung from the bench, crept into the space behind Meyler and floated in a cross that another sub, Vierinha, forced past Forde at the second attempt. Furious Irish players surrounded the US official claiming that Quinn was taken out in the build-up.
They could have no complaints about the fifth as Portugal broke at speed when a Cox run into the box was stopped and attention quickly shifted to the other end where a Nani through ball found the overlapping full back Coentrao who clipped past Forde with precision. By then, Irish bodies were gasping for the final whistle.
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]
Referee: Baldomero Toledo [USA]