Wednesday 20 March 2019

Late frustration but Ireland show new signs of life

Poland 1-1 Ireland

Republic of Ireland's Aiden O'Brien celebrates scoring with teammates REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Republic of Ireland's Aiden O'Brien celebrates scoring with teammates REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Callum O’Dowda rides the challenge of Poland’s Grzegorz Krychowiak last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There's an old saying about bad things happening in threes but Martin O'Neill avoided that fate in Wroclaw last night.

Indeed, this could be the exercise which leads the Ireland boss to conclude that three is the magic number for his side.

After a thrashing in Cardiff and the damage of the leaked WhatsApp audio, there were fears that an understrength travelling team would suffer another punch to the gut in Poland.

Indeed, the opening gambit for the Derryman at his post-match press conference was a local explaining that he'd spoken to Irish fans beforehand who were anticipating a 6-0 drubbing.

"Well they were wrong," said the 66-year-old, slightly taken aback by the query.

His team did suffer late frustration here when Mateusz Klich's 87th-minute leveller prevented O'Neill's charges from securing a shock win against a strong Polish team - with Robert Lewandowski one of the few first-team players missing.

Ireland assistant boss Roy Keane remonstrates with the match officials. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland assistant boss Roy Keane remonstrates with the match officials. Photo: Sportsfile

However, this was a much more coherent Irish performance and the reversion to a 3-5-2 formation suited the personnel at O'Neill's disposal. They only really lost their way when substitutions removed key cogs in the wheel and the manager's demeanour afterwards indicated he was happy with the exercise.

The important caveat is that Poland were not at the races at all and large parts of this encounter were played a pedestrian pace.

When the hosts rose from their slumber in the dying stages Ireland were hanging on. But there were fears that this eventful September double-header would finish on a much more sombre note.

"You are judged on performances and particularly results and we were all beaten in Cardiff," said O'Neill, agreeing with the statement that an improvement was necessary in order to restore some good vibes.

Poland's Wojciech Szczesny is beaten by a header from Aiden O'Brien. Photo: Sportsfile
Poland's Wojciech Szczesny is beaten by a header from Aiden O'Brien. Photo: Sportsfile

"The players tonight responded brilliantly."

O'Neill and Roy Keane will be able to take positives away from the trip. New boy Aiden O'Brien enjoyed a magic second-half moment to put Ireland ahead and came in for special praise.

And the best part of the system was an improvement in midfield where the composure of Shaun Williams and the creativity of Callum O'Dowda next to Jeff Hendrick gave Ireland a much better balance compared to the Wales defeat.

There is an argument that the formation might not suit some of Ireland's better first-choice players, although O'Neill is yet to test it in a game of substance. The temptation must be there to dabble in next month's double-header with Denmark and Wales that has significance which goes beyond the UEFA Nations League.

This exercise will be long forgotten if those matches go badly, but the signs of life are a major boost for the under-fire management team. After a build-up centred around a civil war of sorts, this was very much friendly fare.

Indeed, in comparison to the acrimonious preliminaries, there were parts of the first half that were positively serene.

Poland had fielded a strong side yet they were strangely subdued and, it must be said, not overly energetic when it came to closing down.

O'Neill made six changes from Cardiff, with three of them enforced by injury. The shape changed to a 3-5-2 with first international starts for Enda Stevens, Williams and O'Brien.

They were all prominent in spells where Ireland retained possession competently with Williams conducting from a deep-lying midfield role.

"He's a really nice player and it was really helpful that he wanted to get the ball down and play it," said O'Neill.

Stevens and Cyrus Christie were the wing backs, with Matt Doherty a frustrated spectator. Hendrick and O'Dowda were tasked with trying to get forward. There was even one purposeful drive in the area from Hendrick that provided a brief reminder of what he can do.

Ultimately though, chances were scarce and there was a lot of shadow boxing with the crowd that had belted their way through the anthem worn down into Mexican waves from the early minutes.

Poland's best opportunity came when Stevens was caught unbalanced by a long throw and Arkadiusz Milik nodded wide. Beyond that, there was a shortage of incident to truly justify the need for action replays.

Ireland changed that from the restart and lifted the urgency levels to punish Polish lethargy. O'Dowda was the main factor, a winger by trade who seemed to enjoy his brief in the centre and his change of pace and shot tested Wociech Szcezesny.

The Bristol City player's confidence levels were up and, just as O'Neill was preparing to replace Christie, the Fulham man forced a corner.

It was cleared but Ireland retained possession with Hendrick's build-up play followed by a superb flick and cross from O'Dowda that was headed in at the near post by O'Brien.

"I thought Callum was terrific," said the manager. "And O'Brien played exceptionally well for a player making his debut."

O'Neill made a double switch, sending in Doherty and David Meyler for Christie and Hendrick. Graham Burke would follow in place of Robinson.

The natives were restless, with a home debut for new boss Jerzy Brzeczek developing into an anti-climax. He made six subs but Lewandowski stayed sitting.

O'Neill mixed up his options and an unlikely front duo of Daryl Horgan and Burke finished the game up front and, with neither particularly adept at defending from the front, pressure was invited.

Poland were dominating the ball, a contrast from the opening 45 where possession was close to 50-50. Conor Hourihane was also a less effective midfield shield than Williams and direction was lost as Poland lifted things a gear.

"We had disruption with the subs," admitted O'Neill.

At the back, Richard Keogh, John Egan and Kevin Long had been doing the basics well but they were pulled out of shape at the death with Klich gliding through to dispatch the leveller.

Irish Independent

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