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Saturday 3 December 2016

Irish Joie de Vivre is released by Walters

The Republic of Ireland’s Jon Walters celebrates after scoring a penalty and his side’s opening goal against Bosnia and Herzegovina in their Euro 2016 Championship qualifier, second leg play-off at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin
The Republic of Ireland’s Jon Walters celebrates after scoring a penalty and his side’s opening goal against Bosnia and Herzegovina in their Euro 2016 Championship qualifier, second leg play-off at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Dust down the inflatable bananas, pull out the French phrase book and start saving your euros. We're off to France next summer.

How Martin O'Neill pulled this off is almost miraculous. A team beaten and bruised when Scotland came to Dublin and left with a point have somehow clawed their way back from the brink and have reached the promised land.

From the moment Robbie Keane went nose to nose with member of the Bosnian back room team in a minor territorial dispute during the warm-up, it was obvious that the night would be filled to the brim with raw emotion.

A fantastic pre-match build-up was soured when some dimbulbs in the bank of Bosnian fans housed under the metalwork at the north end of the ground thought it was a good idea to bellow during the silence called to mark events in Paris.

But the was the only blemish. A stadium packed to the rafters was ready for a show and the harum-scarum opening moments of the game gave every indication that safety belts and beta-blockers might be needed before the night was out.

O'Neill's decision to make just one change, Jon Walters in for Stephen Ward suggested that the patrons of the Aviva would spend a considerable amount of time gazing into the floodlights and so it unfolded.

An opening blast of energy from both teams fit the occasion but didn't lead to any goalmouth action. The Bosnians were trying to pass, Ireland trying to stop them and when they weren't, green shirts hit the ball long to Murphy or Walters.

It wasn't all 'route one' though and after nine minutes, a wonderful flowing move from one side of the pitch to the other showed what was possible.

James McCarthy robbed Lulic deep in his own half and swept forward before curling a pass to the far side where Murphy fed Hoolahan who in turn moved it to Robbie Brady, sprinting full out into the left corner. He got to the byline and fired in a cross which Zukanovic was very relieved to push the ball wide for a corner with Walters lurking.

It was a moment of excellence and gave Ireland confidence to press forward with ever greater intent.

In the 24th minute, reward for what was an impressive high tempo start came when Murphy fired a cross into the box and ball, at the very most, grazed Zukanovic's hand. Referee Bjorn Kuipers didn't hesitate when he probably should have.

Up stepped Walters, the calmest man in the ground, and clipped a perfect penalty to the left while Asmir Begovic dived to the right. One foot in France.

Lulic was booked and any one of a half dozen Bosnians risked the same when they surrounded the Dutch referee complaining about his decision with some vehemence. To be fair, they had a point.

Still, it was a lucky break which Ireland accepted with open arms. The collapse of Bosnian discipline was even more welcome.

Edin Dzeko reminded everyone that game had a distance to run when he galloped towards the left edge of the Ireland penalty area and whacked a shot into the side-netting but it was an isolated attack.

Bosnia enjoyed a lot of the ball up to half-time but they didn't do a great deal with it. The pattern established early in the first-leg in Zenica reasserted itself with green shirts soaking up anything which came their way.

Change

Half-time came and went without any noticeable change. Bosnia broke time after time against a highly-disciplined Irish defence.

O'Neill called Hoolahan ashore after 55 minutes and sent in Shane Long and swapped McClean for Murphy.

With 70 minutes on the clock, the goal which sent Ireland to France sent the Aviva into ecstasy.

A wonderful whipped free-kick from the right from Brady dropped into the six-yard box and found Walters on the left edge. One swing, one connection and that was that.

Euro 2016 play-off: Rep of Ireland 2 Bosnia and Herzagovina 0 (Ire win 3-1 on agg)

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