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Friday 9 December 2016

Ireland made to scrap for play-off route

Republic of Ireland's Jon Walters celebrates scoring from the penalty spot during the European Championship Qualifying match at the National Stadium, Warsaw
Republic of Ireland's Jon Walters celebrates scoring from the penalty spot during the European Championship Qualifying match at the National Stadium, Warsaw

TWO moments of magic from Poland made sure that it’s a case now of two nights of anxiety in the playoffs for Martin O’Neill’s side.

This 2-1 defeat in Warsaw was the last game of the group stage and, following from the astonishing highs of Thursday against Germany in Dublin, this was a downer as Ireland, for all that blood, sweat and tears, lacked the spark necessary to down the Poles on their home patch, Poland deserving winners.

So Poland march on to Euro 2016 automatically along with Germany, who clearly carried the burden of their Dublin defeat into last night’s action as the Germans had a most unimpressive win at home to a brave Georgia.

No world-beaters, Poland do have two players in Robert Lewandowski and Grzegorz Krychowiak who have that touch of magic dust about them. Playing in the Bundesliga and La Liga every week, both men harbour real hopes of winning the Champions League this season and it was classy finish form the two class acts which got Poland over the line.

Yet we came close enough to the 2-2 draw which would have seen Ireland over the line, as had keeper Lukasz Fabianski not pulled off a great stop to keep out Richard Keogh’s header 10 minutes from time, it would have been the Poles gearing themselves up for that potential disaster of a playoff next month.

 An injury to Shane Long (for which, in a clear case of injustice, the Polish player who fouled him went unpunished) saw Ireland go for it in the last 20 minutes, Robbie Keane sprung from the bench with Wes Hoolahan and an off-colour Aiden McGeady also thrown into the fray

But the 2-1 lead, which Poland established in the 42nd minute, stood to the Irish test, yet the way in which Ireland have finished this group at least serves up some hope for the playoffs in November, though suspensions a big worry.

The Poles are a nation whose sons and daughters have made Ireland their home in the last ten years, and that welcome in Ireland has not been forgotten. The atmosphere in the city in the hours before the game at this magnificent stadium was friendly, though beer-fuelled in a lot of cases.

That welcome was reciprocated ahead of kick off. As Amhrán na bhFiann rang out, the home fans responded with a round of applause, a nice touch.

But friendship and friendliness went out the window in a pulsating two-minute spell early in the first half. Once we hit the 13-minute mark, Warsaw exploded and the game burst into life.

Darren Randolph, starting an international for the first time in his career, was forced into a save after some neat approach play from the home side teed up a chance for Kamil Grosicki.

That yielded a corner for the home side and from that, Ireland had left Krychowkiak unmarked on the edge of the box. The classy La Liga player, a Europa League winner with Sevilla last season and a Champions League regular this term, swung his boot and while his shot did get a deflection on its way past Randolph, the goal was all about Krychowiak.

The crowd of 57,497 was still taking that in when Ireland drew level. Long chased down one of those lost causes that he does so often and as he drew into the box to challenge for the ball, Long was struck in the face by the boot of Legia Warsaw defender Michal Pazdan, with referee Cakir Cunyet pointing immediately to the spot.

With Long off getting checked for injury, penalty-taking duties fell to Walters and the big man from Stoke shrugged off the boos of the home fans - that cheerful welcome for our national anthem was a memory by now - and stroked home his eighth goal in an Ireland shirt.

Having just about drawn breath from that pulsating two-minute spell, Poland had the ball in the Irish goal again on 18 minutes but Krzysztof Maczynski was offside.

The game settled into the same pattern, Poland owning the ball and Ireland struggling to get hold of it, with Shane Long playing his heart out up front, running into channels and hoping to make something else come off for him.

While the first Poland goal had a mixture of brilliance and luck, the second goal, on 42 minutes, was sheer class. Pawel Olkowski did the early spade work down the left - Poland had seemed to target Robbie Brady at left back as our weak link, as the did in the home game back in March - and Cologne man Olkowski was surely smelling himself as he slid in a nice ball for Maczynski to send in a cross aimed at the head of Lewandowski.

And Lewandowski showed why he is such a class player with a brilliant header, making it six successive games to score for club and country.

The goal rattled Ireland and Glenn Whelan - only back in the side after suspension - picked up a yellow card.

The second half saw Ireland press hard, though the injury-enforced absence of Long hurt the away side. Apart from an 80th minute save from Keogh, Fabianski had his goal well-protected and fpr all the urgings of Hoolahan, Ireland had no way through to the second goal.

The night ended in more misery on top of the defeat and the back-door into the playoffs, if more misery were needed, as John O’Shea was sent off for a second bookable offence while Walters picked up a booking, his third of the campaign and both men will now be suspended for at least the first leg of that play-off next month. That is a massive blow for O’Neill as Walters and O’Shea had started every game in the campaign.

That test in the play-offs, against a team like Denmark, was already tough but without O’Shea and Walters, that road to France looks trickier and trickier.

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