Friday 23 March 2018

Gap to Jason McAteer's Holland heroics finally bridged by Ireland

Ireland 1 Germany 0

Republic of Ireland's defender Cyrus Christie (L) and Germany's midfielder Andre Schuerrle run for the ball
Republic of Ireland's defender Cyrus Christie (L) and Germany's midfielder Andre Schuerrle run for the ball
Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, shoots to score his side's first goal past Manuel Neuer, Germany
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill celebrates with Roy Keane and Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane following his side's victory
Republic of Ireland supporters celebrate after Shane Long's second half goal
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

So this is what jubilation feels like. On an extraordinary night in Dublin 4, a patched-up Irish team stunned the world champions to secure a victory that ended a 14-year wait for comparable euphoria.

Shane Long's Jason McAteer moment has opened Ireland up to a world of possibilities, with a play-off place secured after Scotland's draw with Poland in Hampden Park.

Martin O'Neill had spoken in the preliminaries about fighting spirit, and it burst to the fore in a heroic performance where application was mixed with composure when it came to the crunch.

Long's stunning breakaway effort with 20 minutes remaining won it for an Irish team that had spent a good portion of the previous 70 trying to harangue accomplished opponents who largely controlled the ball.

With O'Neill roaring them on from the sidelines, they managed to hang tough and avoid the painful late concessions that have dogged this generation at key junctures. No such mistake would be made here and the frenzied celebrations at the final whistle were justified.

German boss Joachim Loew was shellshocked. "One of the most unnecessary defeats we've ever had," he sighed. "They scored from their one and only chance."


Remarkably enough, Poland's late equaliser in Glasgow was actually unwelcome - although it came when Ireland still had work to do.

If Scotland had hung on, any kind of Irish draw in Warsaw would be enough to book a ticket to France next summer. A 2-2 outcome or a higher scoring equivalent would now secure automatic qualification. A scoreless draw or 1-1 would do for the Poles.

But Ireland will be in a winning frame of mind. With Glenn Whelan and James McClean available again and the possible availability of Seamus Coleman and Marc Wilson, O'Neill will have the option to recharge batteries if necessary.

O'Neill had embarked on last night's daunting mission with another team which threw up a couple of surprises. Daryl Murphy, who was absent for last month's double header, got the nod ahead of Robbie Keane and Long.

The skipper was expected to miss out, with the latter coming into the fray, but it was a pick which indicated that O'Neill still holds reservations about a player used to dropping in and out of the side at Southampton.

Winners write the history and keeping his pace in reserve will now be rewritten as a masterstroke.

It was concerns about defensive issues that had figured more prominently in the pre-match discussion. With Coleman and Wilson sat on the bench next to the suspended Whelan and McClean, Derby duo Richard Keogh and Cyrus Christie came into a back four where the major call was the selection of Stephen Ward at left-back to allow Robbie Brady move into midfield.

Ward has spent most of his time at Burnley as a spectator, and it's ten months since he last started a game in the league. His 2014/15 contribution has consisted of an outing in a Capital One Cup loss to Port Vale in August.

As preparations for a showdown with the world champions go, it's less than ideal. In the circumstances, he was excellent before his body gave up on him.

Loew, by contrast, selected an XI with eight members of the squad that brought the trophy home from Brazil.

A reshuffle allowed him to bring back in Marco Reus, the star man in the 6-1 demolition of the hosts at the Aviva three years ago. It seemed appropriate that Keogh, the partner for O'Shea, walked out wearing a head bandage: Germany had the potential to inflict serious pain.

It was apparent in an opening 20 minutes where Ireland struggled to get on the ball for any more than a few seconds, with a brilliant block by O'Shea to deny Ilkay Gundogan and a last-ditch clearance from Keogh providing some respite for the majority of the 50,604 sell-out as the German corner count stacked up.

Conceding from a set piece would have frustrated O'Neill and there was a lengthy inquest when the unmarked Jerome Boateng headed over the bar.

Ireland held firm until the break, however, with the crowd taking particular encouragement for a spell after the half hour mark when the hosts managed two dozen or so passes together and move up the park with Wes Hoolahan unsurprisingly in the heart of it. That movement culminated with a quick pass from Hoolahan to Jon Walters and a deflected shot into the side-netting.

Ireland tried to keep a disciplined shape with Brady sticking relatively tight to James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick. McCarthy, who has taken a fair bit of criticism in this campaign, thrived in his brief in front of the back four. This is what the fuss is about.

The only first-half setback for O'Neill came before the interval when Shay Given damaged himself taking a kick-out and was eventually withdrawn after hobbling around for a few troubling minutes. Darren Randolph was duly sprung ahead of David Forde for a competitive bow.

It turned out to be a significant choice. Ireland resumed to put in another shift of chasing, and they rode their luck when sub Andre Schurrle wasted an opportunity to stroke home a superb delivery from Reus.

As the hour mark ticked past and news emerged of Scotland being in front, Ireland were growing in confidence. "We showed tremendous bravery to get on the ball," stressed O'Neill.

Hoolahan seized on German hesitancy, robbing the ball and teeing up Murphy for a speculative effort that fizzed wide. It was the Waterford man's last act; Long was summoned in his place and that switch met with the approval of an increasingly hyper audience.

And the impact was instantaneous. Ireland were recovering from a reshuffle forced by the withdrawal of Ward when a Randolph punt caught Germany napping and Long burst free into space for a clip that will be replayed for the grandkids, a fierce right-footer that soared past Manuel Neuer and into the top corner. The Lansdowne Roar was a throwback to another era.

Long balls

"We avoided 99 long balls," said Loew, "The 100th was just one too many."

"I'm not even sure that we kicked it 100 times long," replied O'Neill. "But he's won the World Cup, he's entitled to a fairly decent opinion on the game."

An onslaught followed with the pair of enforced substitutions removing O'Neill's ability to refresh the legs. There was always going to be anxiety, though, and the ground froze as Thomas Mueller had the freedom to pick his spot from ten yards - he found the subdued German spectators behind the goal.

When the fourth official signalled for an extra four minutes, the volume soared once again. Walters and Hendrick brought the ball to the corner flag and all the pivotal decisions were good ones.

They embraced the pressure to alter the script and make dreams possible again.

Irish Independent

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