Friday 15 December 2017

Ring-rusty stars fail to shine

Few positives to excite Trapattoni after drab affair leaves fans cold

Robbie Keane and Luka Modric
Robbie Keane and Luka Modric

NO goals, few chances and minimal entertainment. Hardly a means of convincing the general public to attend future friendly internationals.

Giovanni Trapattoni has always stressed that 'the show' is down his list of priorities, though, and he was taking the positives from this exercise.

Specifically, a fifth successive clean sheet, a respectable result against highly ranked opposition and, most importantly, no injuries.

Considering Ireland will have to cope without possession for large parts of next month's crucial jousts with Slovakia and Russia -- more so against the latter -- there will have been some benefit to this exercise in terms of shape and discipline.

From the personnel point of view, however, it is hard to draw any firm conclusions from this scoreless draw with a Croatian team ranked eighth in the world.

Trapattoni said last night that Stephen Ward had done enough to prove he is ready to start against the Slovaks, although that doesn't necessarily mean that he will. "He confirmed we can trust him," said the 72-year-old, who is certainly pondering the demotion of Kevin Kilbane.

Stephen Hunt's chances look to revolve around the well-being of the sidelined Aiden McGeady, while Darron Gibson, who had motivation to produce a strong display with Keith Andrews absent, probably fell short of what was required.

There was praise for Shane Long from both managers, and Trapattoni reckons he will be needed in the double header as he is sceptical about Kevin Doyle's chances of recovery.

Opposite number Slaven Bilic was polite about Ireland's prospects without giving a ringing endorsement. He felt his team were the better side, an assessment that was hard to argue with.

"We were controlling the game in the Irish half of the pitch," said Bilic. "With a little bit more concentration in the last part of the pitch, we could have won the game."

That said, Trapattoni was right to point out that for all the Croatian time on the ball, they created very little of substance. He is optimistic.

"We have a good balance," he said. "I know that when some of our missing players recover, we can be more incisive. Defensively, we showed we have learned from mistakes made in the past. That is important."

Croatia were the more comfortable side, with man-in-demand Luka Modric doing things at his own pace. A sumptuous flick over the top to release marauding full-back Ivan Strinic served as a reminder of his ability.

Stephen Kelly was perhaps fortunate not to give away a penalty as he held Strinic back, although the Croatian's reaction was disproportionate to the contact. Bilic was adamant it was the wrong decision.

Gibson was outperformed by midfield partner Glenn Whelan in a period when the Croats owned the ball. Indeed, Robbie Keane was forced to drop deeper to provide support, and Long was even called into action to block an Eduardo effort.


The West Brom capture did get into the right box at the midpoint of the half, rising to steer a Whelan cross goalbound, but well within the reach of Stipe Pletikosa. At times, however, the Tipp native was ploughing too much of a lone furrow, chasing long balls into the channels and waiting for support.

Croatia had the edge in cohesiveness and a clever drawback from Darijo Srna was met errantly by Nico Kranjcar. For all that Bilic's men had the ball, though, their front players, Eduardo and Mario Mandzukic, were well shackled by Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger.

Left-full Ward ceded possession cheaply on a couple of occasions in the opening minutes, only to recover strongly with a brace of timely interceptions before the interval. He also teed up Keane for a weaving run that culminated with a weak enough strike that wouldn't have registered in a highlights package on another night.

The paying public who trotted along deserved better and 10 minutes after the resumption they at least got a bit of a shoving match when Gibson tried to atone for a stray pass by scything down half-time sub Ivica Olic.

Civility briefly went out the window as players from both sides frankly exchanged opinions. Perhaps as a consequence, the Irish rearguard lost their concentration from the resulting free kick and were lucky that the unmarked defender Dejan Lovren scuffed his contact with just Given to beat.

As the hour mark passed, the subs began to roll on, with Given and Hunt replaced by Keiren Westwood and Andy Keogh respectively. Whelan was next to go, with Darren O'Dea introduced at left-back and Ward sent into the engine room alongside the tiring Gibson, who seemed to badly need this run-out. Simon Cox and Keith Treacy made late cameos.

It was Trapattoni's men who responded better to the change of personnel, enjoying their best spell in the immediate aftermath.

A move started by Keogh's endeavour resulted in the hosts' clearest opportunity to break the deadlock. It came from an unlikely combination, with a broken-down free collected by St Ledger, who showed a wide player's instinct and technique to swing the ball into the danger zone where Dunne had slipped into space. Alas, he timed his jump poorly and directed his header well wide.

Duff was switched to the left and began to make more of an impact, with a deflected strike that could have looped over Pletikosa's head.

However, the Croatians capitalised as Ireland began to commit bodies, and Westwood was given a couple of nervous moments, with Srna fizzing wide before sub Nikola Kalinic forced the Sunderland recruit into a smart stop.

That was the end of the goalmouth activity, with the muted response at the final whistle suggesting that the Aviva patrons were underwhelmed. They will be looking for a better return on all scores when Slovakia come to town on September 2.

Ireland ratings

Given 6 (Westwood 64, 6), Kelly 6, Dunne 7, St Ledger 7, Ward 7; Duff 6 (Treacy 83, 5), Whelan 7 (O'Dea 74, 5), Gibson 5, Hunt 6 (Keogh 64, 6); Long 6 (Cox 83, 5), Keane 6.

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