Wednesday 21 February 2018

Miracle of Moscow fails to hide flaws

Richard Dunne finds the
time to lead an Irish
counter-attack at the
Luzhniki Stadium
Richard Dunne finds the time to lead an Irish counter-attack at the Luzhniki Stadium
David Kelly

David Kelly

IF the Russians had a sense of humour, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture would have boomed from the Luzhniki's speakers after this one.

This needlessly brave retreat may yet harvest a greater reward in the weeks to come, but this football version of rope-a-dope may yet leave Ireland regretting their wilfully constructed non-aggression pact.

Their retreat, akin to the French under Napoleon all those years ago, was a shameful departure from the fine traditions of the beautiful game, satirising Ireland's pre-match boasts that they would approach this match with an eye on victory.

True, it was not a defeat. But those who celebrate this night must prefer graffiti to Da Vinci.

This was a further indictment of a managerial philosophy that seeks to stifle creativity and wallow in a defensive structure which, miraculously, somehow continues to repel invaders as it has done now for 679 minutes of international football.

"A few years ago if Ireland had come away with a point people would have been jumping with joy with that performance," said captain Robbie Keane, who could arguably have discreetly withdrawn from the fray, such was his anonymity.

For those who celebrate the triumph of inertia, clink your glasses. And, if you dare not toast Ireland's utilitarian manager, do not ignore the marvellous will of the players upon whom he places the handcuffs.

While emerging without reproached dignity was their sole collective agenda, mercifully their defence, marshalled heroically by Richard Dunne, allowed some individuals to restore some pride in the Irish jersey.

Well, most of it.


Goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly's stencilling abilities enabled the titanic Dunne to complete the match on the referee's fussy terms; Ireland should have had replacement jerseys ready.

As John Delaney tossed his tie into the celebrating Irish fans, the little details beloved of his lavishly paid manager were once again absent.

Unlike Dunne, somebody took their eye off the ball on this one and Kelly was forced to do his best Tony Hart as he carefully traced a number five on to the back of Dunne's replacement shirt.

Truth is, Dunne scarcely required such identification. As he emerged from the dressing-room afterwards, five stitches held his chin together.

He looked, and felt, like a rookie pugilist asked to go 12 rounds with a multiple world champion.

Typical of his selflessness, he demurred from the plaudits after the best defensive display by an Irish defender in green since Paul McGrath singlehandedly repelled the Italians 17 years ago, to such an extent that even McGrath himself tweeted his admiration, acclaiming the best defensive display by an Irish defender -- "including myself..."

"He was ridiculous," gushed Stephen Hunt of the man now slated to miss Ireland's next game through suspension. "A man mountain. He was just outstanding. Just ridiculous."

Given, who made his debut against Russia all of 16 years ago, was playing his 69th competitive game. Few will emulate such brave resistance as this night when a hat-trick of saves denied Russia the goal they so desperately craved.

"You could have put him in a wheelchair at stages this past week," said Hunt, in reference to the chronic week of back pain endured by the Donegal man. "He's been brilliant for us."

For Given's part, relief merely coursed through his youthful features. "I haven't trained much in the last couple of weeks so I'm pleased to keep a clean sheet, especially here in Moscow on a pitch we weren't used to," he said.

Had his manager allowed his team the freedom to perform on foreign soil as history records they occasionally can -- they are now 11 competitive games without defeat away from Dublin -- his heroism, and that of his beefy bulwark, may not have been required.

In a city teeming with relics, Trapattoni's own version of prehistoric dogma limps listlessly onwards to a defining couple of games where Ireland will, in the worlds of Hunt, hope to thrive with only their "doggedness" as their friend.

This match was manufactured for Trapattoni's defensive system, the only faint defiance ironically coming from Dunne, who marched forward with disdain to strike at the heart of the Russian defence in a momentary raising of the siege. True, he lost possession -- as so many of his team-mates did. But he won it back, too.

Russia's goalkeeper was a veritable spectator; it was only in the final minutes when he was introduced to the football that we realised he was about as comfortable as an octopus on ice.

No matter, Ireland were disinterested in menacing his parish; the game was played almost wholly in one third of the pitch.

When a fleet of Volkswagen cars paraded along the running track at half-time, we contemplated whether Ireland would not have been equally best served by parking them across their 18-yard line.

Hunt offered a scarcely credible defence for the defensive approach offered.

"Of course we were coming here to win. With our away record?

"We went to France and beat them in normal time. In big games, we know we're capable of putting in performances and having a go.

"Obviously, we got pinned back tonight. We'll take the point and move on."

For all of Russia's supremacy, the quality of their attacking attempts decreased exponentially as Ireland's tactics of hanging by the ropes enervated their opponents, while exasperating the crowd.

Russia, beaten here already by Slovakia, continued to pummel and Ireland continued to repel.

"We're still in there fighting," added Given. "That's the most important thing. We knew we couldn't lose tonight because it would be out of our hands. We've got two games to go.

"If we can get six points, we'll see what happens in the other games. On tonight's performance, Russia are the best we've played. They were favourites at the start, and still are. But we've given ourselves a chance; that's all we can ask for."

All we ask of our team is the pretence of heroism. Given, Dunne and more did just that.

The same acclamation cannot be levelled at their manager. The lucky general retreated from Moscow without an iota of regret. Ireland must pray his luck holds out.

Irish Independent

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