Wednesday 13 December 2017

Keane buries ghosts of past failures with double strike to keep Irish on Euro target



Ireland left Macedonia happy last night, something they haven't been able to say before. Robbie Keane's two goals will capture the headlines and he will deserve them. Ireland's captain ran hard and intelligently for 90 minutes despite a groin problem but the goals were as important to Ireland as they were to Robbie Keane.

Ireland and Keane now have other targets. They will play Slovakia and Russia in a double-header in September which they can approach with confidence from a position at the top of the group.

Trapattoni takes his confidence from somewhere, even if it doesn't always seem rational. At the end of 90 minutes last night, it all seemed to make sense. Ireland had scored twice in a crazy first-half in which Macedonia had missed a penalty and Shay Given had saved brilliantly from Goran Pandev.

In the second, things were different. They have now won twice -- in Skopje and Yerevan -- on daunting road trips. There is the feeling that things are coming together.

Before the game, they played Goran Stavrevski's last-minute equaliser against Ireland in 1999 on loop. Ireland might have lost in Skopje two years before but that draw was the more wounding and the anger of the Irish defenders was the most notable thing then and a reminder of the national DNA on nights like these, in places like these.

Last night's game was not as decisive but victory allows Ireland to believe, as Trapattoni had insisted to begin with, that Ireland can qualify automatically. Shane Long's omission due to sadness and tiredness was the big decision. Marco Tardelli announced it on Thursday so he wasn't even given time to get over his grief at Reading's failure to get promoted.

Simon Cox had been around for a couple of weeks, demonstrating what he could do and demonstrating, as Paul Green had done, the value Trap places on just being around. Cox went on to demonstrate a lot more, linking well with Keane and adding a versatility to Ireland's play which had seemed like a far more plausible reason for selecting him than the talk of Long's weariness.

Ireland remain unbeaten away from home in competitive games under Trapattoni and their more assured performances -- Bari, Paris -- had come away from the unforgiving glare of half-empty Dublin stadiums.

Skopje last night was a different atmosphere. The game was held up in the opening minutes as a laser was shone at Shay Given before Ireland scored their customary early goal, even if there was nothing ordinary about the accomplishment. Keane's shot from 25 yards was deflected off Nikolce Novevski but nobody was going to take it away from him. It looped over Martin Bogatinov and gave Keane his 50th international goal.

Macedonia were rattled. They were a goal down and forced to make a change within ten minutes when Ilco Naumoski, who had been flattened by Darren O'Dea, slumped off.

But even a rattled team will get chances against Ireland and Given did brilliantly when Pandev found space away from Irish defenders. The ball over the top reached him and he looked certain to score until Given advanced and saved with his legs.

Ireland were the better team with Cox and Keane linking well. Cox was booked for finishing after being flagged offside but replays suggested he had timed his run well.

If Ireland had problems, they were at the centre of defence which isn't a good place to have them. Pandev almost wept with frustration when he wasn't given a penalty after a tussle with O'Shea. The crowd wailed with him.

Ireland were again showing their purpose under Trapattoni. Stephen Hunt was as useful to his side and as irritating to opponents as ever, while the Macedonians, as they were in Dublin, were terrified by Aiden McGeady. He was scythed down in his first run from which Keith Andrews hit a free-kick that was fumbled by Bogatinov, demonstrating why Nuredinoski had been selected in the first place.

Things got better for Ireland. Foolishly, given their anxiety, Macedonia played around at the back. Novevski knocked it to Boban Grncarov who tried to flick it back to his 'keeper. He was too casual, Keane picked up the ball, moved through on goal and finished with authority.

Ireland needed to hold on until half-time so naturally they immediately gave away a penalty. The problems at the back were at the root of it but O' Shea panicked, kicking Pandev through the Inter forward's legs, a foul you don't often see at the highest level.

Everybody knew what was coming next but they knew nothing. Instead of turning the game into a contest, Ivan Trickovski smashed the penalty off the bar. Ireland were entering alien if happy territory. Given had a pain-killing injection in the dressing room at half-time while the crowd above him were cursing the home side.

Ireland now needed a half of less excitement and the first ten minutes went to plan as they closed down space and forced Macedonia back.

Pandev then put the ball in the net but only having handled it first and nobody disputed.

The crowd were losing interest and it was easy to see why this was a team that had only beaten Andorra in the group.

In the second half, Ireland were giving the kind of performance Trapattoni wanted. Andrews was superb in midfield while McGeady was again more considered in possession than he used to be.

Long replaced Cox for the final third of the game as Macedonia briefly began to pass the ball again with Given tipping over from Velice Sumulikoski.

That was it. Ireland cruised. A couple of free-kicks at the edge of the box could have caused anxiety but Ireland seemed to have moved beyond it.

That might be a temporary sensation. There will be more to worry about but last night Ireland's players celebrated. They were carefree and entitled to think of greater things.

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