Poland stalemate exposes limitations of Ireland's fringe men
Only a catastrophic injury crisis would reunite this selection for a meaningful encounter POLAND 0 IRELAND 0
ON a night where play-off drama was the big story in European football, this was a game which perhaps illustrated why neither country were involved in the climax of World Cup qualification.
The mundane fare shouldn't detract from the positives of Martin O'Neill's first week in charge, however, as there are caveats which make it dangerous to read anything into the outcome.
This was, after all, a November friendly on a dreadful pitch and an opportunity for O'Neill to have a look at the fringe players of a squad that he didn't pick. It's conceivable that the side chosen to defeat Latvia could start a qualifying game, but only a pretty catastrophic injury crisis would reunite this selection for a meaningful encounter.
So, in that context, a scoreless draw on away soil is a respectable enough showing, especially with his short-term commitment to squad rotation complicating the challenge although it must be stressed that his opposite number, Adam Nawalka, was also examining the depth of personnel he inherited.
Their experimentation provided little cheer for the supporters in a scrappy encounter that will quickly fade from the memory. "It wasn't a fantastic spectacle," acknowledged O'Neill.
Only James McCarthy, Aiden McGeady, Stephen Ward and Marc Wilson were retained from Friday, with O'Neill keeping his promise to give every outfield member of the panel a chance to impress at some stage over the two games.
Interestingly, Wilson again featured at centre-half, which could prove significant in the long run, although the versatile Aghagallon native was thrust into midfield as part of a second-half reshuffle.
The industrious Paul Green deputised for Glenn Whelan, while captain for the night Jon Walters started on the right side of midfield with McGeady moving to the left and Anthony Stokes brought into the Wes Hoolahan role behind lone striker Shane Long.
But Stokes was never going to get the freedom on the deck that Hoolahan was granted on Friday and, inevitably, he ended up looking to feed off the problems caused by Long when Ireland adopted a more direct approach.
Certainly, a Polish side with eight changes from the rabble which started Nawalka's reign with a disastrous loss to Slovakia on Friday came out of the blocks with a determination to get a partisan Poznan crowd on side; an early barge on Stokes by Jakub Blaszczykowski reminded the Celtic star that he was in for a battle on an evening where he struggled to really impose his qualities.
Indeed, it was the Poles who pressed hard, with the Irish rearguard finding resistance when they attempted to play out from the back – Wilson was put in a couple of sticky spots in a first half where he sparred with local favourite Robert Lewandowski and performed admirably overall.
That said, while Long was used as an outlet when white shirts swarmed, there was more than one dimension to the Irish approach, with a sharp break that involved Stokes teeing up McGeady to force a corner and a reasonable chance to take the lead.
The subsequent McGeady delivery was flicked on by Walters in a move similar to Robbie Keane's opener last Friday but the flight of the ball caught out Stephen Kelly, who was deputising for Seamus Coleman here.
The other change in the back four saw Sean St Ledger come in for John O'Shea but the Sunderland stalwart was needed earlier than expected with a 32nd-minute groin injury shortening St Ledger's return from a lay-off and adding further pain to his miserable year.
A lengthy stoppage while he was treated further punctured the flow of an unattractive spectacle, with neither side capable of finding room behind the opposition back four. When Lewandowski was on the verge of doing so by attempting to clip the ball over O'Shea, a cynical handball from the Irish centre-half halted his advance, with a yellow card brandished. O'Neill was unhappy with the final 10 minutes of the half, believing that his team lost their shape. "We became a bit ragged," he said.
The second half effectively followed the same pattern as the first, with plenty of endeavour without a great deal of excitement.
Walters was encouraged to drift inside to give Long a hand, with the strategy sacrificing width on the right flank. The hour mark was the signal for the planned substitutions to begin, with Lewandowski called ashore by Nawalka and then O'Neill sending in James McClean for McGeady and Alex Pearce for McCarthy, with Wilson pushed into midfield.
It coincided with the game opening up temporarily, with Polish defender Lukasz Szukula narrowly off target from a set-piece before a typically direct McClean run and cross deserved a better response in the area, with Long late to the party.
Poland probed again when sub Tomasz Jodlowiec's speculative drive sailed over David Forde's crossbar. Alas, the brief flurry of activity was checked by another raft of switches. Kevin Doyle, Hoolahan and, finally, Whelan were sent into the fray, with Wilson hobbling off to be replaced by his Stoke team-mate.
By now, the Irish front four had rotated, with Walters and Doyle taking turns as the central striker and right-winger and Hoolahan trying to benefit from their grafting. But space in the final third was at a premium and the announcement of six minutes of injury-time barely raised a cheer as dissatisfied home fans slowly filtered towards the exit, with an inevitability about the stalemate.
When the final whistle was blown in Poznan last summer, the prospect of a post-match party in town was the only source of cheer for the throngs of Irish supporters. The city centre was a quieter place last night for the hardcore of 200 travelling fans who made a return visit, with the roadworks in the city centre a fitting backdrop for digestion of a meeting between two sides that are clearly a work in progress.