Tuesday 20 August 2019

Richard Sadlier: Spirit and bravery we have, but a little composure would help

Miralem Pjanic (left)
Miralem Pjanic (left)

Richard Sadlier

Ninety minutes from the Euros. One clean sheet from qualification. A winner-takes-all game in Dublin with the added comfort of an away goal already secured. This seemed a highly improbable scenario just a few months ago but we're facing elation or gut-wrenching heartache tomorrow night.

Edin Dzeko said last week that he believed Ireland were a good team that would never give up. For some reason it jarred. I'm not sure why, but it felt a little patronising. Is that the height of what can be said about Ireland these days? That no matter what happens on the field the players will stay fully committed to the cause? Is that it? Where were the comments about technical ability and tactical nous, entertainment and creativity? He also mentioned that a number of Ireland's players play in the Premier League but somehow that managed to sound hollow as well.

Maybe I was being a little over-sensitive or maybe, like the BBC reporter who suggests Guinness will feature heavily in Irish sporting celebrations, he was absolutely right. You might wince a little when you hear it, but their case is water-tight. Wishing it was another way won't make it so.

Ireland showed again on Friday how far a team can go if it is built on a foundation of honesty and hard-work. No superstar egos, no prima donnas, no players with notions of grandeur. Few players with high technical ability but every one of them prepared to give their all. That's not condescending and it's not patronising. It's been the most impressive aspect of this qualifying campaign. No matter how much they've been up against it, no matter how much they've been written off, Ireland are deservingly a goalless draw away from going to France.

Look at the defensive unit that Martin O'Neill selected on Friday. Richard Keogh's man-of-the-match performance in Zenica was his 10th international appearance, only four less than his central defensive partner Ciaran Clark. It was the first time either player appeared in this campaign without John O'Shea alongside them. Stephen Ward has barely kicked a ball this season for Burnley and Darren Randolph's first competitive cap came last month. They were five minutes from keeping a clean sheet against Bosnia, something that no visiting team has done on that pitch in more than four years.

In Edin Dzeko, Bosnia had one of the top strikers in Europe playing up front. Ireland went with Daryl Murphy, a player yet to score in international football, even in a friendly. Before last weekend he was yet to find the net this season in the Championship. Remarkably, there was a sense of disappointment at the end not to come away with the 1-0 win.

It wasn't the only disappointment, though. Yet again, Ireland failed to show much composure on the ball. Too often it was given away too cheaply, particularly in midfield. Even brief passages of controlled possession were rare and Asmir Begovic in Bosnia's goal wasn't tested enough. You'd be worried for a team that plays that way if it made it to the Euros, particularly if matters didn't improve between now and then, but it may also be the reason the team falls short.

You can over-complicate football analysis as much as you like but a team with a weakened defence that can't keep the ball will buckle under the pressure eventually, particularly against players with the class of Miralem Pjanic.

Even if Ireland progress tomorrow night without improving this aspect of their play - and nobody will care in the immediate aftermath if they do - progress in the finals will depend a lot on how they address it. The expanded format of the finals will obviously dilute the standard of what a major tournament usually delivers but things could be ugly again for Ireland if they continually give the ball away. Eventually a team will pay the cost of relying on spirit.

For this reason playing at home might not necessarily be to Ireland's advantage. Ireland's travelling fans didn't get on the players' backs for repeatedly losing possession in Zenica but that won't be the case in Dublin. More than 50,000 people will be demanding more, dreading the thought that the campaign will end tomorrow. And with every Bosnia attack potentially leading to the concession of an away goal, it's hard to imagine this not going all the way to the final seconds.

Spirit and bravery will be required, qualities Ireland have shown in spades, but there'll be a need for composure and cool heads if the team is to prevail.

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