Friday 20 April 2018

Rocky Irish road to solid ground

Full points fail to disguise problems for Trap

In a region lying upon a series of ever-shifting tectonic plates, Ireland nearly saw the ground collapse from beneath their feet in the Republic Stadium in Yerevan.

Ireland lost their cool in stifling heat for long enough to inculcate a serious strain of doubt that they can fulfil their self-expressed aim of completing this Group B campaign atop the pile.

Had they collapsed into a hole, it would have been one entirely of their own digging.

The tactical straitjacket has been re-fitted since Paris, that night of expression a distant memory as reality bit, even though the three points may iron out a surfeit of ugly creases.

Hours earlier, we had wallowed in optimism under the baking sun. Fausto Rossi was putting the Irish team through their paces. The Italian fitness coach conducted what seemed to the normal, pot-bellied 'mere mortal' in the stands, a series of back-breaking stretches, races and relays.

In the sauna-like plus-100 degree temperatures 40 minutes before kick-off -- even the mercury dials have packed in -- it seemed unnecessarily sadistic, a bit like asking a stranded traveller in the Sahara if he wanted a cup of coffee.

But this would be a battle for cool minds, as much as scorched matter.

A new campaign, but before the business began an unkind reminder of historic hurt, Robbie Keane bowing to the governing body's lily-livered sop to high-profile boobery.

"I promise to abide by the rules of fair play," he intones gravely, perhaps quietly wondering if his and Ireland's summer might have been spent differently had such a Corinthian spirit applied in Paris last November.

Instead, Ireland were undone almost immediately when their concentration falters, wonder kid Henrikh Mkhitaryhn exposing John O'Shea down the left-hand side, while Richard Dunne was guilty of an appallingly sloppy pass, both scares coming in the opening 12 minutes.

And yet Keane could, and perhaps should, have profited from one of Ireland's trademark moves, the O'Shea hoof and Doyle flick-on; the pursuit of an early goal to calm frayed nerves will now become ever more frazzled.

Armenia acquired confidence from increasing Irish trepidation, Paul Green befitting his surname with some ponderous play in the middle, while, initially at least, it seems Liam Lawrence's rustiness threatened to expose the manager's ignorance of other options.

If anything, the Armenians were guilty of perhaps over-playing their exuberance, even if an outrageous back-flick forced Shay Given into action yet again.

Ireland's aerial route, as evidenced by the Keane chance, was clearly a profitable route; sadly, however, they were culpable of allowing quickfire counter-attacks which infused the home side with even more gusto.

Aiden McGeady attempted to buck the trend, darting on a few slaloming runs which belie his recent inactivity; it was his run and subsequent corner which provided Ireland's best early chance. Then, as if to copperfasten the delicate balance of the tense tie, Armenia were able to break, but, mercifully, Sean St Ledger averts the danger in one box seconds after nearly scoring the opener in the other.

Ireland, against meagre foes, were being dragged into a street fight.

The suspicions of an unsympathetic referee barely lighten the mood.

Poor Green looked like little boy lost in the Irish midfield, surely Darron Gibson's would be introduced. Keane was been dogged by officious whistle-blowing and growing frustration.

Ireland managed to thread their first decent move together just before the half-time break, putting seven or eight passes together and switching the play in novel fashion.

It was as if they wanted something creditable with which to endure the half-time purgatory.

You wonder were there any attempts to steer Ireland away from the stagnant course into which the game was drifting, but they seem distracted on their return, Keane still harassing the referee as to the legitimacy of his second denial of a penalty claim.

Green's presence suggested official sanction of his hitherto unproductive performance. Ireland threaten first but, like much of the evening's work, it was constructed without conviction and essayed without real purpose. Set-pieces remained the only feasible option as they struggled to untie this Gordian knot.

The Armenian manager's team-talk appears to have been more decisive as they continue to counter with verve and enthusiasm, seizing on every Irish slack pass, of which the hapless Lawrence is increasingly culpable.

At times, Ireland resembled a discordant rabble, far removed from the glorious failure of thrilling football provided in Paris; it was Ireland's great fortune that their opposition were themselves so lacking in some of the basic footballing principles.

The game degenerated to such an extent that wild ricochets from hopelessly skewed Armenian pot-shots threaten the gravest of danger; had Mkhitaryhn a willing and suitable foil, surely their efforts would draw handsome reward.


Ireland occasionally intervened with their own contribution to the growing surrealism; a wild hoof from the back sees Keane in the clear. The Keane who hauled Tottenham from the Premier League mire and thrived in the early part of last season would have finished with consummate ease.

Sadly, this was the Keane who has been cold-shouldered by Harry Redknapp, since the very next Premier League outing following the nightmare in Paris. His weak, feeble effort trickled disconsolately off the 'keeper's left-hand post.

Ireland continued to implode at the other end, Richard Dunne almost arrowing a header past Shay Given, who looked appropriately bewildered. He was not the only one.

There was not a cool head to be found, Kevin Doyle's honest intelligence a beacon for so many others who were simply losing the plot.

And yet there is an imperceptible shift in focus from the Irish, as at least now, 75 minutes into the affair, they were attempting to pass the ball and sustain some momentum in which to grind down their pernickety opponents.

It was another long ball that does for the tiring home side. Keane's dallying when presented with a perfect opportunity to shoot with his left foot is foiled, but Keith Fahey, only on the pitch a matter of minutes, coolly side-footed with an authority so lacking in many of his team-mates.

The roof of McDowell's in Inchicore would have fairly lifted to acclaim the former Super Saint's first international goal.

The captain was withdrawn and Ireland finish on the back foot. The final whistle signalled only relief.

Ireland have at last reached solid ground. That it shifted so uneasily beneath their feet for so long will not be erased when Andorra arrive for some turkey shooting on Tuesday evening.

Irish Independent

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