Monday 24 October 2016

France beckons after dreary victory

Ireland 1 Georgia 0

The Republic of Ireland’s Jon Walters celbrates his goal with Shane Long during their Euro 2016, Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium
The Republic of Ireland’s Jon Walters celbrates his goal with Shane Long during their Euro 2016, Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium
The Republic of Ireland’s Wes Hoolahan tries to beat Georgia’s Ucha Lobzhanidze during their Euro 2016, Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium

If we're honest, we didn't deserve to win this game but Jon Walters usually plays to his own script and when he bundled the ball into the back of the net with 20 minutes on the clock, a massive sigh of relief lifted from the Aviva.

For 70 minutes no belief, no confidence and nothing like the level of performance needed to take three points but then Jeff Hendrick decided to take a risk and suddenly the door to France his swinging wide open.

Not that many fans seem to care. They gave this game a miss. Every time we turn up at the Aviva, there's a regulation comment about the empty seats but this time was even worse than usual.

Vast open spaces greeted the teams when they came out for the anthems and if O'Neill and his players were under any illusions about how far down the pecking order they have dropped in Irish sport, this was another stark reminder.

Almost 170,000 people packed Croke Park over the weekend and had Ireland's rugby players been hosting England rather than playing at Twickenham on Saturday, another 50,000 would have rocked up the Aviva to wave the egg chasers off on their way to the World Cup.

But this is now the reality and nobody is surprised anymore when the bulk of the green on show for an absolutely crucial Euro 2016 qualifying game is plastic laminate covering seats rather than shirts on fans backs.

The 18,000 or so that did bother to show saw a slow, slow start from Ireland and some truly terrifying jitters, epitomised by Robbie Brady's bizarre attempt to switch play close to his own penalty area and slicing his pass behind for a corner.

Pure, raw nerves infested everything Ireland did and for the early moments, Goergia had the ball and looked like the home team.

But Brady is nothing if not persistent and his next notable moment almost produced a goal. A sweet interchange between the Norwich full-back, Wes Hoolahan and Jon Walters finished with a cross to the back post where Robbie Keane was lurking but just a yard ahead of where he could have done some damage. He controlled with his chest but had to stretch to shoot and the ball flew over.

It was a promising move but was answered almost immediately by Levan Mchedlidze who drove into the Ireland penalty area and scuffed his shot with just Shay Given to beat in the 10th minute.

It was a sharp reminder that Georgia still had the scent of blood in their nostrils after dispatching Scotland and fancied another scalp.

With less than 20 minutes on the clock, the crowd began to show signs of impatience. Before the game, many expressed the hope that Ireland's midfield would take control and stamp their presence on Georgia early on.

Other than an interminable series of cross field passes which kept the ball moving but achieved little, there was no evidence that James McCarthy was ready for a command performance. Or anyone else.

Hoolahan buzzed around wide on the left, too far from central midfield to make the impact he can make so it fell to Glenn Whelan to act as playmaker and he followed his manager's orders reasonably well..

The most effective tactic by far was a long punt from Given aimed at Walters but Georgia's back line is made up of big, big men and he lost as many tussles as he won.

As the half wore on, Georgia settled into a nice, easy rhythm of possession and it wasn't until the 37th minute that a green shirt did anything to really worry them.

After a series of threatening crosses from Brady and Hoolahan on the left, Coleman took hold a of a breaking ball at the angle of the Gerogia penalty area and let fly. The shot travelled at a good height for goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili but he still had to be sharp to turn it around the post.

It was the only serious shot on target in the entire 45 minutes and the half-time whistle brought catcalls and boos. This was not what the crowd wanted to see at all.

O'Neill shook things up at the break and took Keane off. His replacement Shane Long's orders were plain. Run at Georgia and give them a physical test.

But the pattern didn't change much and Long didn't make a great deal of progress. Georgia didn't show enough self-possession to really punish Ireland but with just an ounce more encouragement from manager Kakhaber Tskhadadze they might have done just that.

The began to withdraw into their own half and the pressure came on in the final quarter. Whelan began to take a proper grip of the game and had two quick shots which were saved.

Finally, the breakthrough. In the 69th minute, Hendrick drove into the Georgian penalty area from the left, skipped through two tackles and squared for Walters to muscle the ball over the line.

It was a wonderful crafted goal by Hendrick and mirrored his heroic cut-back for John O'Shea to score that late, late equaliser in Germany.


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