Qualification possible but it’s a Long shot after late drama against Poland
Ireland 1 Poland 1: Euro 2016 Qualifier
AS the clock ticked into injury-time, Ireland were heading for defeat in a game that was flagged as ‘must win.'
But, similar to Georgia and Germany, there was a late twist from a direct route and a happy ending as a corner was swung into the box and unlikely recipient Wes Hoolahan headed the ball across the area, where sub Shane Long was ready to capitalise and cleverly nick home an important equaliser.
Amid the celebrations, relief was the prevailing emotion.
Ireland’s wait for an era-defining win at the stadium goes on but they earned this point on the basis of a dogged second-half showing as Poland ran out of steam.
Still, the vocal masses of red and white shirted Poles that were dotted around the stadium will not be too disappointed when they wake up and scan the table this morning. A draw strengthens their position at the top of Group D, a point ahead of Germany and Scotland and their boss Adam Nawalka stressed that it was an acceptable outcome.
Ireland sit fourth and are playing catch-up with regards to automatic qualification. Martin O’Neill’s side need to beat Scotland in June or else the prospect of missing out on a top-three finish will become a worryingly plausible scenario.
"We have to beat Scotland," said O'Neill without equivocation. "I think it probably boils down to that."
In short, Ireland have a lot of work to do to make this result pay in the long run, but their manager was chuffed by the resolution.
"Whatever (attributes) we may lack, I think courage and spirit are not amongst them," he said,
"I don’t think it’s a fluke we’ve scored late goals. I know it’s cliched but it does show something about the character of the group, we keep going right until the end.
"Who knows, at the end it might be an important point. For Poland, it’s a great point away but we are still well in it."
At the break, a doomsday scenario was developing. A positive team selection had been followed by a first half packed with negatives.
O’Neill did 'go for it' by springing a number of surprises. Robbie Brady was handed the jersey at left back after scoring twice from that berth in November’s defeat of the USA, while Hoolahan was finally picked for an international match of real substance.
Robbie Keane also returned to a side featuring seven changes from the XI that lost to Scotland in November. Significantly, Shay Given was recalled in place of David Forde between the sticks.
That was a major call and, naturally, O’Neill was hoping that most of the action would happen at the other end of the field.
However, on the occasion of his 128th cap, 19 years after his debut against Russia at the old Lansdowne, Given had to be more alert than Lukasz Fabianski in the early exchanges. Ireland didn’t register a shot on target before the break.
The quality of the fare was in keeping with the frenetic atmosphere and, despite adopting a 4-2-3-1 initially, the unfortunate sight of long balls being punted in the direction of Keane was a feature of the nervy early minutes. "We were tentative," said O'Neill.
Ultimately, green shirts were unable to find any real space across the halfway line with the skipper barely getting a touch.
Hoolahan, always looking to take a quick free and lift the tempo, was booked for a hack on Lukasz Szukala after an attempted through ball was intercepted. The group leaders were always that step ahead and in the 26th minute they went a goal ahead, although ironically it came just as Ireland were beginning to compete.
Brady, the big gamble, was exposed defensively as Poland sensed vulnerability.
There were a series of errors in the creation, yet when it came to the crunch the Dubliner was out-muscled by Slawomir Peszko at the touchline as he tried to play the ball inside to Wilson, who was then weak under pressure from Maciej Rybus, a failing which allowed the alert Peszko to continue his run, collect the ball and drive past Given from a wide angle.
It was an aberration which summed up Ireland’s difficulties before the interval, with dawdling in the wrong areas and the Poles were physically stronger and far more assertive.
Ireland had to change things up in search of parity, which bred risk given Poland's counter attacking reputation. O’Shea and Coleman followed Hoolahan into the book as they thwarted breaks illegally. Jonathan Walters was moved from the right into the centre in order to provide an aerial focus and Hoolahan switched to the left wing for a reversion to 4-4-2.
While he didn’t execute every pass perfectly, the Norwich trickster was still at the heart of the best move, a through ball for Coleman that came to nothing after a clumsy touch.
Ireland resumed with the same shape, with Hoolahan operating off the left and Brady urged to advance. Within five minutes there was almost a fortuitous leveller as Stephen Ward’s replacement watched in agony as an attempted cross deflected off Peszko, sailed over Fabianski and crashed against the woodwork.
O’Neill’s troops enjoyed a spell on the ball, even if the direct route to Walters remained popular and it won a free-kick in a dangerous position just shy of the hour mark. It was made for Brady, but he curled it well over on a night where his set-pieces varied dramatically in quality.
He followed that miss with his best delivery, an outswinging corner that Wilson rose to head straight at Fabianski. With Poland falling further back, the locals found their voice as Ireland began to dominate territorially.
Aiden McGeady, whose lack of match sharpness was evident, made way for James McClean. The Wigan lad can serve as the catalyst for activity and settled into proceedings with a forceful run and cross that Keane wheeled away to greet but his header came back off the post. McClean then clattered into Arkadiusz Milik to announce his arrival. "His introduction was pivotal," admitted his manager.
Milik seized the chance to stay down and Poland were keen to run the clock wherever possible. Robert Lewandowski was spending the majority of his time in the Irish half as the minutes ticked by and, by extension, Brady and the spirited Coleman were increasingly visible attacking the Polish rearguard.
Another dimension was needed, though, and it was no surprise when Long was readied and sent in for Glenn Whelan to add an extra forward to the mix for the final 10 minutes.
Whelan, who like James McCarthy did a lot of quiet sweeping, did inspire an excellent chance with his last act, robbing possession and freeing McClean whose daisycutter was driven wide by Coleman after he crept in at the back post.
Ireland temporarily appeared to be out of ideas but the signal for the five added minutes brought a cheer and a drive from the increasingly forceful McCarthy that led to a free and then the corner which resulted in Long’s finest moment in a green jersey.
Shay Given - 6
Selected ahead of David Forde and his positioning was questioned for the Peszko goal but otherwise he actually didn’t have a huge amount to do as focus switched to Poland’s Lukasz Fabianski.
Seamus Coleman - 7
System was designed to get him forward more and he did make some purposeful breaks into Polish territory but had a few awkward moments going the other way.
John O'Shea - 7
In terms of shackling Robert Lewandowski the Irish back four did reasonably well yet they had some nervy moments in first half. O'Shea was solid without being spectacular.
Marc Wilson - 6
Mopped up some dangerous situations as last defender yet he was ponderous for the opening goal and can cause panic on occasions. But the Polish front pair didn’t get behind him often.
Robbie Brady - 6
Endured a horror show in first half as his mistake led to the goal and his set pieces went way off course. Improved after break when he got on the ball where he is comfortable.
Glenn Whelan - 7
The Stoke man was taken off to allow Shane Long come in and get the winner but while he was by no means dynamic, he did a lot of unseen work and covered for the full-backs.
James McCarthy - 6
He grew into this challenge and while he was subdued in the first half he was prominent in the recovery effort, showing fight to set wheels in motion for the leveller. That should set the template for June.
Aiden McGeady - 5
His first game since January 31 and it showed as he was just a little sluggish in terms of execution and didn’t really succeed in getting on the ball in threatening situations. Fared better when switched to right but early withdrawal was inevitable.
Wes Hoolahan - 7
He was extremely eager to impress and he did make mistakes but if you put a player on the park who takes risks then that will happen. The positives outweighed the negatives.
Robbie Keane - 6
Said after Scotland that he wasn’t suited to running on his own up front but was in that situation here until Walters was sent in for support. Was left on the pitch in case a chance came his way and when it did, the post intervened.
Jon Walters - 6
He really did put his body on the line for the cause and after being peripheral on right he was moved into central brief and became a target. Put it up to the physical Polish centre-halves.
Martin O'Neill - 6
It was looking grim with 20 minutes to go and the Brady call possibly backfired but he again made the right substitutions to retrieve the situation. Plenty of food for thought ahead of the summer.
James McClean (7) for McGeady 67 mins
He’s a bundle of energy and O’Neill might feel he perhaps should have started him.
Shane Long (7) for Whelan 83 mins
A brief but desperately important contribution. If he finished every chance with that composure he’d start every time.