Sunday 18 February 2018

Alarm bells are ringing as Ireland stumble on the road to Russia

Georgia 1 Rep of Ireland 1

James McClean’s shot late in the game is saved by Georgia’s goalkeeper Giorgi Makaridze during last night’s FIFA World Cup Qualifier at Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi Pic: David Maher/Sportsfile
James McClean’s shot late in the game is saved by Georgia’s goalkeeper Giorgi Makaridze during last night’s FIFA World Cup Qualifier at Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi Pic: David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It started well and ended badly. That was the story of Ireland's night in Tbilisi, and the fear is that it will become the tale of their attempts to reach next summer's World Cup in Russia.

The result is a setback, but it's the performance that should set the alarm bells ringing. Georgia may be a better team than their world ranking of 112 suggests, yet they are not as good as Ireland made them to look for long periods of this game.

Ireland's Shane Duffy (R) and his teammates celebrate their goal
Ireland's Shane Duffy (R) and his teammates celebrate their goal

Martin O'Neill said beforehand that ball retention was key in the warm conditions. Ireland failed miserably in this department, and there were moments of panic followed by aimless punts into the sky that painted a deeply troubling picture. Across the 90 minutes, the home side completed 568 passes while Ireland managed 150. There's no positive way of interpreting that statistic.

Results have justified the means in this campaign. O'Neill could argue that a point in Tbilisi is a decent outcome in isolation, although he shied away from going down that route afterwards and agreed with a question that suggested that it was the worst performance of the campaign.

While Ireland remain unbeaten, they have drawn all three competitive games in 2017 to squander the position they worked themselves into by winning in Vienna last November.

Serbia come to Dublin on Tuesday with a two-point lead and that is a game that Ireland need to win or else they will be nervously looking over their shoulder as Group D reaches its climax.

Ireland's Shane Long (L) vies Georgia's Jano Ananidze (R) Photo: Getty
Ireland's Shane Long (L) vies Georgia's Jano Ananidze (R) Photo: Getty

O'Neill's second-half changes reflected the desperation. Sitting midfielders Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter were sacrificed for Aiden McGeady and Daryl Murphy as Ireland concluded the game with Robbie Brady and James McClean as their central midfield pair. They created chances that would have maintained their 100 per cent record against their hosts, but the game was a mess at that point.

The regrets should centre on the loss from a momentum from a fabulous start, a break that should have allowed the green shirts to take command. But they were never in control of this fixture and paid the penalty for that.

It was all looking so good. The last act of June's qualifier with Austria was a controversial disallowed goal where Shane Duffy made a nuisance of himself. Three minutes in, the balance was squared up. Jon Walters, who was passed fit to play on the right side of midfield, won a free-kick. Whelan looked for it to be taken quickly, but the instruction from O'Neill was to send it into the box. Cyrus Christie did just that and with Ciaran Clark adjudged to have stayed on the right side of the law in blocking the path of goalkeeper Giorgi Makaridze, Duffy was able to nod in his first international goal.

That was the high point of the half as a familiar script played away. Granted, O'Neill's instincts were correct in terms of the need to get the ball into the penalty area because the Georgians never looked comfortable. The problem for Ireland was working themselves into that position as they sat off against a side that was technically better and braver in possession. After McClean headed wide a cross from Walters, Ireland retreated. We had seen this movie before.

Ten different leagues were represented in the hosts' starting XI; their respective football journeys have taken them to a variety of places. But there was a unity and clarity of purpose in their play that was lacking from the visitors. And eventually, they got their reward.

Georgia continued to probe, with Spartak Moscow's Jano Ananidze - who sees very little action for his club - the most accomplished player on the park. He was pivotal to their goal, dropping into the pocket between subdued skipper Whelan and Arter to draw Christie out of position and tee up San Jose Earthquakes' Valeri Kazaishvili for a thoroughly deserved leveller.

O'Neill felt his players were slow to close the Georgians down but that wasn't the main issue. Giving the ball away at every opportunity was draining the battery power. Lone striker Shane Long was isolated for spells, with Brady struggling to offer support from the central attacking berth and frequently falling back on top of Whelan and Arter. McClean was strangely quiet in this spell and the half-time whistle came as a relief.

Ananidze threatened from the restart, yet as the minutes ticked by the Georgians did lose their shape and if analysis was boiled down simply to clear chances then the Irish camp could try and spin an argument in their favour. Christie was emboldened as the game became stretched and sent over a cross that Long should have done better with. McClean was switched inside when McGeady was introduced and began to make a difference, although he did pick up a yellow for kicking a ball away. He was the only Irish player to be cautioned, with the seven players who were a booking away from a suspension keeping their bibs clean. O'Neill could probably do with making a few changes anyway.

McGeady, the hero of three years ago, was bright in his cameo and embarked on a couple of runs that showed the Georgians were fading, as they tend to do. With space appearing, the pace of Long created a glorious chance for McClean but a heavy touch allowed Makaridze out to block.

The signal for an additional four minutes offered hope, but Ireland couldn't muster up the energy to produce another opening of similar quality, with McGeady swiping at a ball that dropped his way. This time, there would be no lucky escape.

Ireland will need more than good fortune to bounce back from this.

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