Tuesday 20 March 2018

End justifies the means

Three points paper over cracks of familiar failings, writes John O'Brien

BY the second minute the game had changed irrevocably. A gift from the gods, or more accurately, a gift from Macedonian keeper, Edin Nuredinoski, who let the bounce of Aiden McGeady's well-struck but hardly fearsome 20-yard drive deceive him and deflect into his net. The joke about poor Nuredinoski having a Macedonia moved swiftly into circulation and all our pre-match assumptions had been shredded.

All week memories and stories of past meetings between these sides had helped drive up the pre-game nerves. But it wasn't just ancient history that prompted anxiety. Ireland experiencing difficulties against even moderately ranked football nations at home has been such a feature of recent history that it is now virtually inscribed on their DNA. Against a side containing the proven talents of Goran Pandev and Goron Popov, there wasn't much reason to assume it would be any different.

And yet. Twenty minutes gone. Two goals. Both of them gifts from the hapless Nuredinoski. Any concerns about the fitness of Robbie Keane had been dismissed. Only a predator of Keane's standing would have been so alert as to be onto Darron Gibson's 25-yard piledriver just as the keeper was about to spill it just forward enough for the striker to get his toe to it. The Macedonian defence stood as still as ice-blocks. If it was a measure of the trust they had in their last man, it was grievously misplaced.

In truth it was far too easy at that point for Ireland, but it was fun to watch. Gibson spraying passes around midfield like the general we desperately wish he will become. McGeady, finally an international goalscorer after 38 caps, enjoying the freedom of Lansdowne on the left. A makeshift back four with little to do and time to find their bearing on the big stage. Darren O'Dea's consummate dispossession of Pandev early on raised hopes that a good night lay ahead.

Yet if this Ireland team is going the right way we know it is far from perfect. McGeady's attacking instincts are an essential component of the future and his spell at Spartak Moscow has already been of considerable benefit but, defensively, there remain serious doubts. There were plentiful signs that McGeady and Kevin Kilbane did not make a perfect marriage on the left. It was probably no coincidence that most of the danger Macedonia posed came on that flank.

Their goal was a true thing of beauty, though. As Ireland's most experienced defender, Richard Dunne won't savour a replay of the movement that ended with Ivan Trichovski turning him in the box and directing his shot past Kieren Westwood. From a position of calm authority Ireland had conceded a goal on the cusp of half-time. Their habit of leaking goals at bad times frustratingly continues to endure.

Trichovski's strike made for an intriguing, if uncomfortable, second half for Ireland. Recovered from the shell-shock of conceding two cheap goals, Macedonia began to play closer to the manner we had originally anticipated. There was a sense of purpose about them. Pandev began to assert himself in attack. Kilbane and McGeady had words near the touchline. Gibson, for some reason, got ratty with Shane Long. Irish nerves were beginning to fray.

The longer the game wore on it became easier to imagine Ireland letting another winning position slip than to foresee them killing off the game and producing what is known in the business as a 'professional performance'. That craft doesn't appear to be within this side's grasp. It felt odd during the week when Giovanni Trapattoni made a vague promise to James McCarthy that he would receive his first taste of competitive action.

You wondered would the course of the game allow it. Would it be within the Italian's make-up to trust the young Wigan midfielder to help close out a game in which Ireland were living on the edge. With 12 minutes remaining Gibson left and Keith Fahey was brought on to shore things up. McCarthy didn't follow him until four minutes from the end and it elicited the biggest cheer of the night. A raucous ovation for the departing Keane and a welcome roar for McCarthy. Ireland's past and future coalescing in happy circumstances.

So the night edged to a happy conclusion. Trapattoni will never do derring-do but there was a willingness to tweak his rigid system enough to give expressive players like Gibson, McCarthy and the promising Kevin Foley their heads and that suggested a more open approach might be more viable in the future. The endeavour and passion shown by his players was faultless. Under pressure they held firm. They are going the right way.

In a group that promises to be incredibly tight and hard-fought to the last day, the value of three points was incalculable. If they came with imperfections, what matter? We have been long inured to those.

Sunday Indo Sport

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