Ireland dare to dream after unconvincing win and Scottish setback in Tbilisi
Gibraltar 0 Ireland 4
A light has emerged as the end of Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifying tunnel and all of sudden, we can all dare to dream that a trip to France next summer could be on the cards after all.
As goals from Cyrus Christie, another brace from skipper Robbie Keane and a late clincher from Shane Long eased Ireland to victory against opponents unfit to be playing at the top level of the game, the real drama of the day had taken placed before a balled had been kicked in the Algarve Stadium Gibraltar use for their home matches.
While Ireland boss Martin O’Neill did his best to insist in public that his focus was trained on the game against Europe’s most unnecessary footballing nation, all in the Ireland camp knew this was a vital day in their hopes of making it to the Euro 2016 finals in France next summer.
The unconvincing nature of the Irish campaign up to this point ensured that their destiny in Group D was out of their control, with Scotland’s trip to Georgia always likely to be the fixture that could swing this tensely contested qualifying pool wide open.
So it proved. Before a ball had been kicked in anger by Ireland, the news O’Neill and his team had been fantasising about had been was delivered, with Scotland going down to a 1-0 defeat that deflated Tartan Army hopes and inflating Irish dreams all at once.
Scotland had opened the door for Ireland to get back into contention for qualifying from Group D and that opened door could be kicked down in glorious fashion if this comfortable win against Gibraltar is followed up by victory against Georgia in Dublin on Monday night.
It was never going to be easy for Ireland to look impressive against a team deploying a formation that was entirely focused around damage limitation, yet this was a rare chance for Ireland to display their ability on the ball against opponents who were not equipped to halt their march.
As ever amid such mismatches that do little for the credibility of international football, some of the cast list snatched their chance and others fluffed their lines. In Christie, O’Neill found a performer who slotted neatly in the first of those categories.
It was not just the classy opening goal served up by the Derby full-back that highlighted his promise in the right full role, with his silky skills and classy finish cementing his reputation as a star in the making. Debate over whether his effort was a cross or a shot can be put aside as it seemed clear that Christie meant to shoot at goal as his effort broke the deadlock after 26 minutes.
Christie’s goal was good reward for a bright start by an Ireland team that started this game with an energy and vibrancy that suggested they knew they had been given a qualifying reprieve. Letting the moment slip now was not an option.
James McCarthy saw a shot deflected wide, Robbie Brady’s fizzing free-kick produced a fine save from Gibraltar keeper Jordan Perez and Ciaran Clark flicked a header onto the bar as the visitors pushed for the breakthrough. It was always likely to come, but the tension edged up a notch until the Christie goal arrived.
A 1-0 half-time lead was not the comfortable advantage boss O’Neill would have been hoping, with the sprawling save Shay Given was forced to make from Liam Walker’s long-range effort a reminder that more goals were required.
They duly arrived from a familiar source at the start of the second half, with skipper Keane on hand to tap in from close range after Jon Walters cross had been deflected onto the woodwork and fell neatly into the Dubliner’s path four minutes into the second half for his 66th international goal.
The Irish scoring icon had to wait just two minutes for his 67th, with his cool spot kick converted with typical aplomb after Wes Hoolahan was fouled in the box. Keane’s delight as he celebrated his latest goal with the travelling Irish fans was evident for all to see. His zest to continue to play for his country 17 years after making his debut shows no sign of waning.
Shane Long added the finishing touches to the Ireland win with a smart finish in the 79th minute and there could have been more goals for Ireland on a night when they had 62 per-cent of the possession and fired 24 shots towards the opposition goal.
With a downbeat Scotland now needing to dust themselves down before squaring up to the might of Germany on Monday, Ireland could be four points clear of their chief rivals for a top three finish in Group D at the end of this latest round of international games.
Luck is often as much of an ally for successful managers as good judgement and if the name of Martin O’Neill is added to the lost of coaches taking part in the Euro 2016 finals in France next summer, he will look back on this day as the turning point in his reign as Ireland boss.