Wednesday 22 November 2017

Di Maria makes it opening night to forget

Ireland 0
Argentina 1

Gabriel Heinze arrives late to tackle Paul Green. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Gabriel Heinze arrives late to tackle Paul Green. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Wondering how the opening night went?

Well, the game started late, the manager was too ill to attend, the FAI didn't come close to filling the place and Scandinavian officials wrongly awarded the only goal to the opposition. Aviva!

It made for a terribly underwhelming evening, with little trace of the Lansdowne roar which gave the old venue character, save for the singing section which valiantly tried to rally the masses as an understrength Irish side were outplayed by an Argentine team which only really had to work for their victory in the second half.

August friendlies rarely inspire great memories, but this was intended to be a game and occasion to remember. Wrong on both counts.

Nevertheless, across town in the Mater Private Hospital, Giovanni Trapattoni won't have been too worried by what he witnessed on an evening when Marco Tardelli led from the touchline. The Argentines are no barometer to judge Ireland's Euro 2012 qualification prospects by and Trap will have been encouraged that the newcomers to his plans acquitted themselves reasonably well.

Remember, this time last year, a makeshift Irish side was hammered by Australia in Limerick, a reverse which bore no consequence when the serious business got under way a few weeks later.

Certainly, some encouragement could be drawn from aspects of the display after the interval, with some of the fringe members of the squad making the game more of a contest -- although the rhythm was interrupted by a raft of substitutions from both sides.

"In the first half, some players lost concentration," said Tardelli, who spoke with Trapattoni after the game. "Giovanni told me to congratulate the players for how they played in the second half. In the first half, maybe they were afraid. But Argentina played well."

The expensive cost of tickets for games at the new venue was always going to come home to roost and the spectre of empty seats at the grand opening emphasised just what a disaster the sale of 10-year tickets has proved to be. Apparently, there were 45,200 present.

It should give the delegates at next week's AGM a question or two to ask their €430,000-a-year CEO.

The unavailability of Trapattoni and a number of his intended starters didn't help the Irish cause here.

While the manager was undergoing surgery on his abdominal problems, it emerged that Kevin Doyle had failed a fitness test. So Cillian Sheridan, fresh from an appearance with the U-21s on Tuesday night, was drafted in for the Wolves man due to the lack of striking cover. Caleb Folan, Shane Long and Leon Best were all on the treatment table, with Best facing three months on the sidelines with ruptured ankle ligaments.

Added to Liam Lawrence's groin problems -- there are fears he could miss next month's opener in Armenia -- it's been a poor week on the health front. Keith Fahey stepped into the breach, operating on the right side of a midfield which also included fellow summer graduate Paul Green.

Argentina stand-in boss Sergio Batista rolled out some of his many stars, with the three-man front line of Angel li Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi offering a reminder of their prowess. With Higuain in the centre, Di Maria and Messi were deployed wide, bringing them directly into contact with Paul McShane and Kevin Kilbane respectively -- which should give you a fair idea why they looked so dangerous going forward as they bossed the early exchanges.

That said, they needed a favour from errant officials to seize a 20th-minute lead in a game which started 10 minutes late due to queues outside -- even though there was plenty of room inside.

Higuain stood offside from a goalkick -- as the rules allow -- yet when Sergio Romero's punt found the Real Madrid star, he laid off to Di Maria, who was in an offside position as he collected, before expertly chipping Given. "Giovanni asked me if the rules had changed," joked Tardelli.

Prior to Di Maria's opener, Sheridan had caused some problems in the air, and 100th cap man Keane and Damien Duff dragged efforts wide of the mark. Overall, though, the South Americans were tidier in possession and largely untroubled by the green shirts, controlling the tempo accordingly. Messi sprung to life sporadically, skipping away from Kilbane and testing Given with one left-footed attempt. It gave the bored crowd a frisson of excitement.

After the resumption, the Danish officials seemed intent on atoning for their earlier howler, with some dubious calls in favour of the hosts, especially the awarding of a corner from a Duff free- kick that touched nobody before going behind.

By the hour mark, both benches were experimenting, with Tardelli sending on Greg Cunningham and Andy Keogh for Kilbane and Sheridan, and Messi withdrawn to a huge ovation -- Higuain had already made way for Diego Milito at the break.

It coincided with a good spell for the Irish. Fahey, switched to the left, made some positive contributions and did enough here to cement his place in the squad. Green is clearly in the frame to start in Yerevan, with the Derby man given a full audition. Keith Andrews was withdrawn to make way for Darron Gibson as the final quarter approached. "He did well in both halves," said Tardelli. "We have found a new option for midfield."

Keith Treacy was then sent into the fray for his international bow and immediately sent in the best Irish cross of the evening, which Romero smartly collected ahead of Keogh.

Ireland pressed in the dying stages with Keane, who was given a deserved tribute before the game, enduring a frustrating evening. Indeed, he could have levelled at the death, but flapped at an overhead kick with Romero all at sea.

He'll have better days. We all will.

Ireland -- Given, McShane, Dunne, O'Shea, Kilbane (Cunningham 55); Fahey (Treacy 77), Andrews (Gibson 67), Green, Duff; Sheridan (Keogh 55), Keane.

Argentina -- Romero, Burdisso (Zabaleta 45), Demichelis, Samuel (Coloccini 83), Heinze (Insua 72); Gago, Mascherano, Banega; Di Maria (Jonas 75), Higuain (Milito 55), Messi (Ezequiel 57)

Ref -- P Rasmussen (Denmark)

Irish Independent

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