Second-half fade-out leaves Irish chasing miracles
Republic of Ireland 1 Scotland 1
The FAI's lawyers could probably make a persuasive case that Ireland will be at next summer's European Championships, but the less optimistic will be giving up hope.
Martin O'Neill remains positive but Ireland may need to beat either Poland or Germany in the autumn after the draw at the Aviva yesterday kept Ireland in fourth place, two points behind Scotland, who will also need to collapse if Ireland are to reach the play-offs.
Scotland are a team growing in confidence, while Ireland's progress comes in random, unpredictable spurts. For 45 minutes yesterday, it was possible to believe that the signs of life witnessed against Poland were the beginning of something with deeper roots.
An hour later and Ireland were back where they started. Shaun Maloney's shot which deflected off John O'Shea into Ireland's goal at the start of the second half took something from Ireland. It had cancelled out Jon Walters' first half tap-in and while they fought on, there was something lacking.
Maybe it was Wes Hoolahan who had been central to Ireland's encouraging first-half display, even if others like Robbie Brady and James McCarthy had contributed in the first 45 minutes.
Hoolahan was replaced by Robbie Keane as Ireland looked for a goal and the decision told a lot about O'Neill's mentality and also robbed the side of so much creative momentum.
In the first half, it looked like being a memorable day for Irish football. Walters' goal ensured that the game was matching the occasion from Ireland's point of view and Scotland's defence looked vulnerable whenever they were attacked. O'Neill said later he didn't want the half to end as he felt Scotland were in disarray.
The equaliser came so quickly in the second half that it appeared to demoralise the home side while Scotland began to play like the team that had raised expectations among their supporters.
Scotland qualified for six World Cups between 1974 and 1998 but there has been nothing in the 17 years since.
This campaign has seen a growing sense of hopefulness which was reflected in the mood of their supporters who had arrived in Dublin. This contrasts with the ennui that has so far accompanied O'Neill's side, ennui that only disappears for as long as the latest sideshow has a run.
O'Neill had hung much on the second-half performance against Poland and for 45 minutes yesterday it appeared that had been a turning point, not just a random piece of fortune.
His team announcement appeared designed to draw attention from the various stories that follow the FAI around.
O'Neill's former player Chris Sutton had predicted Daryl Murphy's selection in his Daily Record column but it shocked most people, as did the inclusion of Jeff Hendrick who was part of a midfield three alongside Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy.
Ireland made an upbeat and aggressive start with Scotland's back four looking vulnerable and being forced into errors. Marc Wilson also made an early unforced error which let Steven Naismith in to shoot but his appeals for a corner were ignored.
Murphy's inclusion suggested O'Neill was trying to play to Ireland's strengths and turn it into a Championship game with Hoolahan providing the creativity amid the pandemonium.
The question that hung over the Ireland team was what would happen when the game calmed down and as Scotland edged forward, we got an idea.
They were cagey at first but grew in confidence. Shay Given tipped a Steven Fletcher shot over the bar when the forward wasn't closed down. Ireland had been caught by a set-piece in Glasgow and they were slow to get out to the resulting corner which saw Matt Ritchie crossing to the far post.
Naismith and Shaun Maloney's influence was growing and would become more pronounced in the second half while Glenn Whelan tried to keep the aggressive intent going as he went in hard on James Morrison before chasing Scott Brown but being too late to make a late tackle. He was booked shortly afterwards for a challenge on Fletcher while McCarthy was lucky to get only a yellow after leading with an elbow on Russell Martin.
The weaknesses in the Scottish defence became obvious in the minutes before half-time. Murphy directed a header towards goal from just inside the box and David Marshall scrambled back to put it out for a corner. Robbie Brady delivered dangerous corners all afternoon but they perhaps caused more anxiety than they should have. Murphy won a header and Marshall was wrong-footed and his save was more of a gentle caress of the ball into the path of Walters who finished from an offside position.
Strachan's side were dangerous and Ireland, too, are always capable of anything. Within 60 seconds of the second half, Scotland had equalised. Ikechi Anya had replaced Matt Ritchie and he was involved in the goal which resembled the winner in Glasgow.
Naismith and Maloney combined again before a one-two between Anya and Maloney pulled the Irish defence out of position. Maloney's shot was going wide before it deflected off John O'Shea.
Murphy had a chance immediately but he shot too close to Marshall while Ireland continued to find space and Seamus Coleman continued to cross poorly.
Scotland looked like the team that played in Glasgow as Anya caused problems on the left and Ireland looked a little desperate.
Murphy was jaded but James McClean was the first substitution, sent on in the 67th minute for Whelan.
Ireland went forward with McClean winning a corner after Hoolahan picked him out on the left but Ireland wasted a series of set-pieces.
Hoolahan was then replaced by Robbie Keane as Ireland needed three points while O'Neill said later that he knew Ireland would play more long balls as they looked for the winner.
It was a baffling decision, robbing Ireland of their invention when they needed it most.
Ireland also needed their history of late goals which has kept them in the group and Shane Long finally came on for Murphy.
O'Neill sarcastically applauded when the referee finally awarded a free-kick in Ireland's favour and there was another heave but if the first half had seen a fine combination of long ball and finesse, Ireland without Hoolahan were without the finesse.
They were now a team without much of a plan and there was no late goal, just another familiar if downbeat ending.
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