Ireland have to go the long route
Lewandowski class proves difference as O'Neill's men some up short in Warsaw
A masterclass in the fine art of goalscoring from Robert Lewandowski destroyed any chance Martin O'Neill had of taking Ireland to France the easy way.
Now the lottery of a draw for the play-offs and after beating the world champions Germany, O'Neill must wonder how fate conspired to give such an astonishing win yet still have to cope with two more games.
It will be a bitter pill to swlallow but O'Neill could have no real gripes with the result. Poland were better on the night in and in truth, better over the campaign.
They came for a show, the Polish fans and when every man, woman and child held up red and white cards, the stadium was transformed. Already intimidating, this underlined Poland's intent.
On the way to the ground though, the mood among the locals was mixed. Many worried that Poland have been unable to convert great qualifying chances in the past and after Ireland's win over Germany, they were wary.
Once again, Martin O'Neill's team selection set tongues wagging before kick-off. This time no Wes Hoolahan, who he described as 'tired' before the game.
Without the twinkling feet of his best player to rely on, he settled for solidity. Glenn Whelan was restored to the engine room in midfield, Seamus Coleman came in for Cyrus Christie and Robbie Brady dropped back into the left-full slot.
O'Neill gave James McClean the start he has been longing for but it was Shane Long, the hero against Germany, who set the tone from the start, chasing down the tip-off and forcing Poland to retreat.
Not for long. After ten minutes used to feel each other out, it was Poland who found their rhythm first and but for a scramble and some desperate work from Darren Randolph at the butt of the right upright, Karim Grosicki would have scored.
That lifted the home crowd and with a few minutes they were on their feet celebrating the lead goal.
A corner from the right found Grzegorz Krychowski centrally positioned at the end of the box and his shot went through a fog of defender taking at least one deflection along the way before settling in the back of the net.
It was a body blow but within seconds, Irish fans were on their feet roaring when Michael Pazdan raised his foot and clipped Long at the edge of the box. Replays showed Long right on the line but Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir pointed to the spot.
Up stepped Jon Walters to slot the ball to the right of Luskasz Fabianski and suddenly, the high-scoring draw O'Neill was looking for was on.
Within a few minutes Poland had the ball in the net but the goal was disallowed for an offside against Lewandowski.
It was a frantic spell of football, wide open with both teams committed to going after goals.
And it continued in the same vein though Poland were doing most of the attacking.
Ireland's defence stood up well for the most part but as the half wore on, they looked increasingly stretched and it was no surprise when Lewandoski gave them the lead for the second time just before the beak.
It was an awful time for Ireland to concede and all the worse when replays showed that Walters was the man marking the world's best striker in the box when a cross from Krzysztof Maczynski found Lewandowsi who duly buried the ball with a fine header.
It was poor defending and rocked Ireland back on their heels. A rearguard action had become a siege but still, when they came out for the second-half, O'Neill and his players knew that one precious goal would be enough to deliver a great prize.
O'Neill's half-time homily eased nerves and Ireland began with much more shape and control, moving up the pitch early on for James McCarthy to have a crack from distance which went a foot wide.
Ireland had more of the ball but suffered a blow when Shane Long was stretchered off, replaced by Robbie Keane and with a goal vital, O'Neill reached for Aiden McGeady and threw him into action instead of Whelan.
His third replacement came in the form of Hoolahan and Irish hearts lifted.
After 66 minutes, Randolph earned his corn with a great stop from Grosicki, who just got to the ball ahead of Keogh, but sees his shot from 16 yards saved well by Randolph.
Ireland went looking for the equaliser but left them exposed at the back and Coleman and O'Shea both had to be on their toes to stop chances from Lewandowski.
With eight minutes left, O'Shea almost delivered. The man who got the most unlikely equaliser ever against the Germans popped up the box for a header from a McGeady cross but Fabianski palmed the ball away.
Not long after, he was shown a second yellow and was sent-off, a serious blow with the play-offs in mind.