Irish survive final test on rocky road
MISSION accomplished, although not exactly a job well done.
The bottom line here was avoiding injuries and, with John O'Shea coming through the duration and Shay Given fine despite his half-time withdrawal, Giovanni Trapattoni moved onto Poland last night with two key defensive figures ready for action.
On the flip side, however, the manner in which Ireland's first-choice XI performed before the break suggested that the rearguard will be exceptionally busy against superior opposition in Euro 2012 unless something drastic changes. Hungary are a decent team, but they aren't world beaters either, and Trapattoni knows that his Group C opponents won't be so wasteful when presented with chances.
That is why, in the aftermath, he indicated that an alteration of approach may be necessary in Poznan on Sunday. Once again, his men toiled against an opponent with three central midfielders.
"We were lucky," he admitted. "If you played that game again, we could have lost 2-0 or 3-0. We have struggled against this system before.
"To have a balance, we must renounce one striker, or put one more in midfield. I will sit down with the team and show them our difficulty."
That strong statement was followed by a fraught couple of minutes where everything was lost in translation. He may start the same XI against Croatia, or he may not.
While there may now be certainty about the availability of personnel, the manner in which they are deployed could vary from the original plan.
Trapattoni can take heart from another stirring Richard Dunne show, and the manner in which his reserves made the second half a calmer affair. But it was an exercise which threw up as many questions as answers.
Croatia manager Slaven Bilic was present to do some research ahead of Sunday but, for a worrying 15 minutes, it looked as though everyone's journey to Budapest could have been wasted. A crack of thunder 20 minutes before kick-off was followed by flashes of lightning and torrential rain which left the match officials with no option but to leave the players standing in the tunnel until the storm abated.
There was genuine concern that the fixture was in doubt. However, the conditions eased, and the teams emerged, much to the relief of the hardcore locals and the vocal away contingent. And, given the questions the game presented, Trapattoni will be delighted that the weather improved.
The downpour had left its mark, though, with splashes of water visible in the early exchanges, a development which must have worried Trapattoni. He had urged his players to be responsible when it came to entering tackles. The conditions clouded the judgment process in a game that began at a surprisingly frenetic pace.
Hungary came into this match buoyed by a win over Czech Republic on Friday and, while they may be missing out on the festivities in Poland, they are clearly building towards a tilt at a World Cup campaign. From the outset, they were lively with €19m Dynamo Moscow winger Balazs Dzsudzsak a particular threat, cutting in from the left flank to probe menacingly.
Ireland's starting left winger Aiden McGeady was initially prominent, and got tangled up with Robbie Keane during a promising early break. O'Shea also glanced over a Damien Duff cross, before Glenn Whelan teed up Keane who forced a save from Bolton's Adam Bogdan. Alas, it was the Hungarians who provided a greater quantity of moments for the highlights reel. Bilic will have noted the manner in which the red shirts found plenty of space between the Irish defensive and midfield line.
Top-class reactions from Given maintained parity, when Dzsudzsak was given too much time to take aim from distance -- his exocet took a sharp deflection, with Ireland's No 1 adjusting his body to outstretch the hand that pushed the ball to safety. The Aston Villa man illustrated his fitness with another dive to claim a tame Adam Szalai poke that was facilitated by a slip from Sean St Ledger.
Trapattoni paced the sideline, temporarily switching Duff to the left flank where his greater defensive experience was required to help Stephen Ward, who was struggling with the volume of diagonal balls that the Hungarians were lofting into his parish. Ireland gradually regrouped to the extent that McGeady and Duff returned to their starting positions and it was actually Ward who proved the hero just shy of the interval, bravely denying Szalai with a last-ditch tackle after the Wolves man immediately cried for medical attention, but gingerly returned to the pitch for the last few seconds before the whistle.
That marked the end of Given and Doyle's contribution, and there was brief panic about the netminder until he emerged from the tunnel 15 minutes into the second half, casually taking a drink from a bottle of water and moving freely.
He had missed a fine save from Kieren Westwood, who impressed with sharp reactions of his own to block a strike from Dzsudzsak which ricocheted off Szalai -- those two were inevitably involved in Hungary's dangerous moments. Briefly, it appeared as though the second half would follow the same pattern as the first, but Ireland managed to regroup and slow down the pace of the game. That mission was also helped by a flurry of substitutions. Jon Walters, who made another good impression in place of Doyle, threatened in two goalmouth scrambles, the latter preceded by a well taken corner from Stephen Hunt -- who got the nod ahead of James McClean when Duff was preserved.
Indeed, similar to the Bosnia game, the injection of fresh legs added potency to Irish attacks. With the spine of the team looking steadier, counter-attacking opportunities emerged. The imperious Dunne rose to clear a Hungarian corner and seconds later, McGeady was teeing up Keane's understudy Simon Cox, who called Bogdan into action. As the game moved into its final quarter, Hunt's searching cross was headed narrowly off target by Walters.
Hunt has bristled at the attention afforded to McClean in recent weeks, and he was desperate to show he can still offer something to the cause. His footprints were all over the dying embers of this sparky affair. The Waterford man was in the right place to clear a shot from Imre Szabics off the line, and he then couldn't believe that nobody got a touch on an inswinging free that presented problems at the other end.
But the last action came in the Irish goalmouth, with Hungarian new boy Krisztian Nemeth sent through with just Westwood to beat. His finish lacked conviction, and Ireland escaped on an evening which could yet have serious implications for the road ahead.
They will need to bring some of that luck to Poznan on Sunday.
Hungary -- Bogdan, Varga, Meszaros, Gyurcso (Koltai 86), Korcsmar, Halmosi (Kadar 69), Pinter (Vanczak 46), Koman, Dzsudzsak, Szakaly (Szabics 66), Szalai (Nemeth 79).
Ireland -- Given (Westwood 45), O'Shea, St Ledger, Dunne, Ward, Duff (Hunt 63), Andrews (Gibson 65), Whelan (Green 84), McGeady, Keane (Cox 61), Doyle (Walters 45).
Ref -- K Hansen (Denmark).