Irish rue misses on night of mixed emotions
Could have been better, could have been worse.
Ireland retained their unbeaten record on their travels under Giovanni Trapattoni, again proving that their Euro 2012 fate will really hinge on their ability to impose themselves at the Aviva Stadium.
The 71-year-old's players showed more ambition here than they did in Dublin on Friday and it made for an open encounter against a Slovak side that needed to muster a response after their shock loss in Armenia.
Certainly, the locals piled on the pressure in the second half and, in that context, the Irish camp will view the draw as a satisfactory result. Failing to send Richard Dunne up for a free-kick in time added on proved that point.
Nevertheless, the management team will also reflect on a missed Robbie Keane penalty in the first half of stoppage-time and further profligacy from the Irish skipper in the dying stages.
"The team showed that they wished to win the game," said Trapattoni, who expressed sympathy with his captain, and acknowledged he might be lacking match practice.
"We deserved to be ahead at half-time with the penalty, but the second half was more balanced. I think we could have won, but I can accept the result." A draw means that, overall, the last week has fallen below expectations for Ireland. After all, Trapattoni had targeted four points.
However, Slovakia's struggles in Yerevan means that the Irish have lost no ground on the team that, in truth, they are most likely to battle it out for a playoff spot with. Russia's joy in Macedonia leaves the top seeds in a strong position.
"The group is very balanced," asserted Trapattoni. "In the next year, many situations can happen."
Next up for Ireland are home and away meetings with the Macedonians in March and June, with Slovakia facing Andorra twice in that period.
It means last night's hosts don't have another serious qualifying test until they visit Dublin next September. Ireland therefore need the maximum from their Macedonian jousts to avoid a situation where the Slovaks come to Dublin needing only a draw to maintain an advantage.
"Maybe we can try one or two new players in the friendly games," said Trapattoni afterwards, reflecting on a couple of days where the depth of his squad was tested.
Early yesterday, the Irish manager opted to introduce Keith Fahey into the team, with the Italian believing that Liam Lawrence hadn't quite recovered from a dead leg, although the Portsmouth man had trained on Monday night.
Shane Long's promotion to deputise for Kevin Doyle was the only other change from last Friday's reverse. Slovak boss Vladimir Weiss made four switches, having lost Martin Skrtel to suspension and only deeming Miroslav Stoch fit enough to take a place on the bench.
Weiss deployed a hybrid 4-1-4-1 formation, with Miroslav Karhan sitting in front of the back four. The visitors went with the standard 4-4-2.
Yet there was a noticeable shift in approach from the outset. Keane was dropping a little deeper, while the back four were a bit more patient in moving the ball out of defence. The execution wasn't always perfect -- indeed, there were sloppy passes from Paul Green and Sean St Ledger in the early minutes, but they were attempting to do something different. The Slovaks were sporadically dangerous, however. Kornel Salata headed over from a menacing set-piece, and Juraj Kucka fired wildly off target with Ireland stretched after a passing movement broke down.
Ireland regrouped, and promptly grabbed the lead. Long's endeavour forced a foul, allowing Fahey the chance to display his set-piece prowess. The pacey delivery caused panic in the Slovak rearguard and, amid a maze of bodies, St Ledger emerged to convert the opener. Trapattoni celebrated and then looked at his watch. Sixteen minutes on the clock.
Familiar territory for Ireland. In the last campaign, they had a welcome habit of taking the lead on foreign soil. The eventual relinquishing of it was a problem, though. Would they retreat?
The immediate response was positive. Fahey's clever interception resulted in a yellow card for his marker Tomas Hubocan before the ex-St Pat's star tested Jan Mucha with an acrobatic scissors kick.
Naturally, the Slovaks pressed and were presented with an opportunity when the Irish overplayed it outside their own area, with Glenn Whelan and St Ledger in a lather -- a stab wide from was Eric Jendrisek the outcome.
A frustrated Stanislav Sestak then secured his place in Alberto Undiano Mallenco's notebook for a pointless lunge on St Ledger.
From a promising position, it was imperative that Ireland didn't offer the white shirts a cheap way back into the game. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened.
Seconds after Keane had nearly capitalised on a sloppy Mucha kick-out, the Zilina crowd upped the volume levels as their side swung the pendulum to the other end and earned a corner. Again, Ireland were caught napping from a set-piece, with Kucka flicking on to the back post where Jan Durica slipped away from Whelan to head past Shay Given with the aid of the crossbar. Back to square one, so.
Change followed, with Green stretchered off four minutes shy of the interval, thus providing Darron Gibson with the chance to prove he should have been in the engine room in the first place. He failed to really grab it.
The first-half drama was incomplete. Richard Dunne's punt sent Aiden McGeady scampering, and while the Spartak man was running away from goal, he won the race with Mucha, clipping the ball over the end-line and colliding with the Slovak 'keeper in the process. Penalty.
Keane, normally so reliable from the spot, couldn't outwit Mucha after a long delay, with the Everton man guessing right. Trapattoni walked to the dressing-room screaming, irate by the positioning of his players to gather a rebound even before the penalty was taken.
The Slovaks attempted to press from the restart and a Gibson mistake led to a Marek Hamsik break which Dunne expertly extinguished. Minutes later, though, the Irish centre-half's tardy pass back to Given almost gifted Sestak a present. They were nervy moments for Ireland, who went through a period of struggling to get out of their own half. McGeady was the shining light, probing and darting away from pursuers and winning his fair quota of frees. Long, engaged in a dogfight with Durica throughout, emerged from a difficult period to impress.
A decent Irish spell was broken by a Tomas Hubocan long-range exocet that Given safely pushed away. A frustrated Weiss, who paid credit to the opposition afterwards, drafted in Stoch and Filip Holosko, before an injured Fahey was replaced by Andy Keogh.
Now, the hosts were looking the most likely winners. Stoch provided fresh impetus, and a desire to shoot on sight. Gibson, a bit ponderous, should have unloaded quicker on an Irish counter.
With the decibel levels rising, the ebb and flow provided all the ingredients for a grandstand finish.
Third Slovak sub Tomas Oravec was summoned as a target-man and headed off target from a dangerous cross, while Keane danced away from his marker at the other end before fluffing his lines terribly at the death. A fair result, with regrets attached.
Slovakia -- Mucha; Zabavnik, Durica, Salata, Hubocan; Karhan; Weiss (Holosko 69), Kucka, Hamsik, Sestak (Stoch 69); Jendrisek (Oravic 82)
Ireland -- Given; O'Shea, Dunne, St Ledger, Kilbane; Fahey (Keogh 70), Whelan, Green (Gibson 41), McGeady; Long, Keane.
REF -- A Undiano Mallenco (Spain)