Saturday 24 June 2017

Stuttering Ireland made to sweat by bizarre addiction to taking the hardest road possible

Rep of Ireland 2 Macedonia 1

Aiden McGeady gives Ireland the perfect start with a
goal in the second minute. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Aiden McGeady gives Ireland the perfect start with a goal in the second minute. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

DION FANNING at the Aviva Stadium

For a moment it looked like it was going to be easy. After 85 seconds Ireland had the lead at the Aviva last night and after 21 minutes they had extended it to two. Russia had drawn in Armenia earlier in the day and Ireland weren't going to squander this opportunity.

They were knocking the ball around with abandon secure in the knowledge that Macedonia had a park footballer in goal in the shape of Edin Nuredinoski. He played a substantial part in Aiden McGeady's first goal for his country and even more in Robbie Keane's 46th.

But before half-time, Ivan Trickovski scored one and Ireland immediately doubted everything. The game passed without Nuredinoski being tested again.

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Jack Charlton's first match in charge of Ireland and it was hard to see what had changed beyond the cosmetics. The pitch was bald and the stands were empty. Yet it is remarked upon now when then it was expected, if anything was expected then at all.

Every Irish team lives in that shadow and the three points last night allows Ireland to continue to believe in qualification from a position level on points at the top of the group.

They may still not play with conviction or even show the professional ability to close games out with confidence but this was an important victory.

If Ireland were being adventurous going forward in the early stages, they were also showing great determination to apply Trapattoni's core values. No Macedonian got space to play and, more importantly, they carried at all times the knowledge that it would all be worthless if Ireland got a chance to shoot at Nuredinoski.

They had learned quickly how beneficial that could be. Keiren Westwood had gathered comfortably from Macedonia's first attack and rolled the ball outfield, signalling Ireland's intention.

His long ball forward was won by Kevin Doyle who worked it out to McGeady. Given his form in Russia, even more was expected from McGeady last night. He delivered after 85 seconds. He cut inside and hit a shot which bounced just in front of Nuredinoski. Whatever way he intended to save the ball didn't work out and it skidded by him into the net.

Ireland had the lead but there was no sign that they were going to sit on it as they had previously under Trapattoni. They would wait for the second goal for that.

Their determination to go forward in the early stages was helped by assured performances all over the field. Darren O'Dea made a superbly timed tackle on Goran Pandev and remained resolute throughout.

McGeady was energised by the goal while Damien Duff was determined to continue his good club form

Ireland were finding space on the flanks and using it well in the first half. After 10 minutes, McGeady played the ball out to Kevin Kilbane who delivered a vicious cross. Doyle won the header and knocked it across goal. Keane seemed to get the final touch as Nuredinoski hesitated but the referee was beginning to doubt the 'keeper as much as the Macedonian defenders and awarded a corner.

Doyle left the encounter wincing and five minutes later he collapsed, clutching his left knee, an injury that may have ended his season.

Shane Long had been unlucky to be left out in the first place and immediately got involved. When he was fouled 20 yards out, Ireland didn't hesitate to expose Nuredinoski's weakness to medium-paced shots bouncing in front of him.

Gibson, who had overshadowed Glenn Whelan in midfield, worked the free-kick perfectly. His shot bounced in front of the goalkeeper, he couldn't hold it and Robbie Keane tapped in the rebound.

Ireland began to play with a swagger before crossing the line into dangerously casual territory. There was one superb move when Ireland cut through the Macedonian side with Keane playing a devastating ball through to Long. The Reading striker got his angled wrong and knocked the shot wide with his left-foot.

It was a final flourish before Ireland retired for the half. Unfortunately there was still 20 minutes to play before the interval.

Ivan Trickovski shot wide in the 32nd minute before reminding Ireland that the points would have to be fought for just before half-time.

Pandev had moved to the right and he picked up the ball and drifted away from Kilbane. He picked out Trickovski who turned Dunne too easily and finished sweetly past Westwood.

Ireland needed to rediscover their discipline in the second half but instead the game became more chaotic and open.

Jason McAteer had described his sending off for a kung-fu kick in Macedonia in 1997 as harsh. The Hungarian referee last night clearly agreed, amazingly only booking Boban Grncharov for a flying kick into Long's head. The game now had rediscovered, unfortunately from Ireland's point of view, a competitive edge.

Duff shot narrowly wide while the Macedonians always seemed capable of putting together a sequence of passing that would flummox Ireland.

Pandev and Trickovski were proving elusive. Pandev got away from Dunne and won a free-kick on the edge of the box which led to the defender picking up a booking which rules him out of June's game in Macedonia.

Trapattoni had appeared to have a clear idea how the game would work out but it wasn't looking so comfortable. Keane faded as his lack of match practice began to show but Trapattoni hesitated to replace him.

Trickovski should have equalised 15 minutes from the end. A simple ball over the top from Muhamed Demiri caught Dunne flat-footed. Trickovski was free in the box but Westwood smothered his attempt.

Trapattoni's second change was to send on Keith Fahey for Darron Gibson and Ireland tried to keep their shape but also keep possession.

James McCarthy waited on the bench until three minutes from the end when he replaced Keane to an almighty roar.

The sighs of relief as Pandev and Trickovski wasted their side's final chances were almost as loud.

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