A dire first half almost cost Martin O’Neill’s side – but they secured three points in the end, despite themselves…
There isn’t an international match involving Ireland that can be approached without a rising sense of dread. On occasion, the team plays well enough to quell that knot in the stomach quickly. But not very often. And the horrible truth is that Ireland’s encounter with Georgia didn’t even come near to that: it was torture to the end.
The boys in green were nothing short of wojious in the first half. They played as if there was a smell off the ball – and it had to be dispatched as quickly and as crudely as possible, the further away the better. That, it has to be said, we have seen before. But what was even more damning was the fact that there was also precious little of the aggression, spirit and bite that enables us, most of the time, to paper over our deficiencies as a footballing side.
It starts with the goalkeeper, Darren Randolph. A really good keeper has the ability to start attacks: gather the ball, look up, spot a player in space and throw it in front of him. Bang! You’re off.
But, and you have to assume that it is on Martin O’Neill’s instructions, Randolph almost never passes or throws the ball to one of his own players. Instead, he hangs onto it for as long as he can and then punts it deep into opposition territory. More often than not tonight, Ireland lost possession as a result. It was horribly dispiriting stuff.
In the first half, the same kind of malaise was evident throughout the team. There was no cohesion and precious little team work. James McCarthy, James McClean and Robbie Brady all lost the ball, or gave it away, far too easily. There were short spells when Ireland threatened. But overall Georgia controlled the game and made Ireland look hopelessly pedestrian.
After the game a number of the Irish players admitted that they had got a “good rollicking” – read bollocking – from Martin O’Neill at half-time. They were instructed to press Georgia higher up the pitch. And as a result, there was a different dynamic about the game in the second 45: suddenly, the visitors didn’t look nearly as comfortable.
Seamus Coleman also started to show a bit more attacking intent. He was going outside people now, taking them on.
As the 56th minute approached, he started on a run down the right. He might have tried to cut inside, but instead took the long way ‘round. The full back should have thrown himself in to win the ball, but didn’t. Coleman got around him on the byline and now he was in the area. He tried to make a pass and got a lucky ricochet. There was an element of pinball about the next two touches, but the net effect was that – by driving forward – he found himself with just a tap-in. He stroked the ball into the net and raced to the far touch-line to celebrate.
Over the curse of the remaining 35 minutes or so, Ireland created the better chances. James McClean smacked a header off the bar when he should have scored. McClean also had the ball in the net for a goal that was disallowed for off-side. Shane Long also had an opportunity but didn’t make a clean connection with McClean’s cross. And McClean saw a shot from outside the area being spilled by the keeper, who just about recovered to keep it out.
But Ireland didn’t have the penetration to kill the game off. And so we lived on our nerves till the final whistle finally took us out of our misery. It ended 1-0. But it was a victory that we hardly deserved.
There is a cliche in football that the table doesn’t lie. But there are times when at best it tells half-truths. With Wales and Austria drawing 2-2, there is a four-way tie at the top of Ireland’s group, with the Republic, Wales, Austria and Serbia all on four points. But looking at the Wales .v. Austria game, both teams looked far, far better that Martin O’Neill’s not so merry men.
That may be misleading. Of course it may. Another cliche is that you are only ever as good as the other team let you be. And another again is that you can only beat what’s in front of you – which we did tonight. But Wales have Gareth Bale, who is a genuinely world class player. And Joe Allen is also very good indeed – and improving as an international player.
On the basis of the defensive timidity of Ireland’s performance in the first half tonight, it is far too easy to imagine Bale running riot against us. But we will see. Right now, the thing that hurts most is that, far from building on the better aspects of Ireland’s performances in the Euro 2016 finals, the team has gone backwards very badly.
It is hard to understand why Martin O’Neill left Wes Hoolahan on the bench tonight, when he has been playing every week for Norwich and doing well. In contrast, both Jonathan Walters and James McCarthy looked ring-rusty and lacking in match fitness. In fairness, McCarthy made some crunching tackles to win the ball back after he had given it away, and he started to make some good passes in the second half. But there was no one to produce the bit of subtle magic that might unlock the Georgia defence. And so it was down to the captain, Seamus Coleman, to deliver the goal – as much as a product of persistence and determination as skill.
All in all it was a performance that made you want Harry Arter to get well soon; and which forced even an atheist to pray that a goal-scorer might emerge from nowhere to make himself available.
Patrick Bamford. Troy Deeney. Callum Wilson. If there is the slightest chance that any of these guys can play for us, we should be banging their doors down. But in the meantime, it is essential that we start to play just a bit smarter than we did tonight. And a smarter team selection may be vital to that. Otherwise it is hard to see us living with Wales or Austria when push does finally come to shove.
Darren Randolph: 6
A decent game and he was in the right place on a couple of occasions to make vital saves. But his distribution really has to improve.
Seamus Coleman 7
He played very conservatively in the first half. Didn’t do a lot wrong, but he has to be given licence to go forward more. That was how the goal came. Without that bizarre run, where would we be now?
Shane Duffy 6
Good in the air and a threat at set-pieces. But in all honesty, he doesn’t look completely comfortable on the ball yet.
Ciaran Clark 7
Didn’t do a lot wrong. There was one strong run in the second half which confirmed that he has the potential to contribute more. One of the night's successes.
Steven Ward 6
Not a bad display overall, but gave the ball away a few times and didn’t add much to Ireland’s attacking options.
Jeff Hendrick 6
Disappointing. Worked hard, but never really created anything and was one of those responsible for letting the Georgians drive forward during the first half.
James McCarthy 6
Gave the ball away twice in the first half, turning promising positions into ones where we were threatened. But he got much better in the second half and started to look like a potential leader again.
Robbie Brady 6
An essential part of the team, though his best position is not yet clear. This was not one of his better days. Tried a few things that didn’t work and ended up giving the ball away badly. Dead ball delivery was not up to his usual high standards. But he is totally committed – and suffered because of it in the clash of heads that saw him carted off on a stretcher.
Jonathan Walters 6
Looked sluggish at times. Hasn’t played a lot this season and it showed. Has great heart and will always work his socks off. But the hope is that, at this stage, those socks aren’t already irredeemably threadbare…
James McClean 7
One of Ireland’s better performers. The downside was how easily he was muscled off the ball by the Georgian defenders on a couple of occasions. But his commitment is immense and he is a bundle of energy. Almost bagged two headed goals, but he was offside (unnecessarily) for the first and was unlucky to hit the bar with the second.
Shane Long 6
Worked hard and his pace is a real asset. But the service to him was appallingly bad – and so he was left feeding off scraps for the most part. Did okay – but might have done better with his second half chance…
Glenn Whelan 6
Martin O’Neill was very conservative in his substitutions. He might have opted to bring in Wes Hoolahan to add a bit of much needed composure. Instead, he replaced the injured Robbie Brady with Glenn Whelan, who did nothing wrong but didn’t show any real spark either.
Martin O'Neill 6
Not a good night for the manager. Sure, it is up to the players, once they are out there on the pitch. But the manager sets the tone: the ethos is his. And he has not succeeded in bringing the best out of the Irish players. This was a home game, yet Georgia were allowed dominate possession completely. We badly missed a bit of composure;Wes Hoolahan,who was on the bench would have provided it. Why didn't we press them higher up the pitch in the first half? That should have been part of the gameplay; as it was we were very lucky not to concede a goal or even two. We need a convincing performance against Moldova on Sunday. But even more so, we need a better tactical approach next time we're playing a half-decent side...
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