Saturday 22 October 2016

O'Neill still has a lot to decide

Ireland boss gives fringe players every chance in Holland draw

Ireland’s Shane Long celebrates scoring during the 3 International Friendly against Holland at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Ireland’s Shane Long celebrates scoring during the 3 International Friendly against Holland at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Martin O'Neill's job just got a lot harder. How he will separate the fringe from the final 23 is anybody's guess after this.

The game ended level, which was just about right though Holland 's equalising goal was as much about the raft of substitutions O'Neill made with 25 minutes left as any great football on their part.

It came after 85 minutes and punctured the party atmosphere building at the AViva but that is no bad thing. No need to crank expectations up to fever pitch at this stage.

It was a perfect night for football but the counter-attraction taking place in the other stadium visible on the Dublin skyline from high in the stand must have had some impact.

Bruce Springsteen is a huge draw but it was amazing that a game billed as the grand send-off for Euro 2016 against one of the world's big names should take place with more than a third of the seats empty.

What an odd sensation it must have been for the Dutch, who managed to mess up the easiest tournament finals qualification in history and in a group which delivered three for France, to be a warm-up act for O'Neill and his players.

Fringe men

O'Neill meant it when he said he would throw his fringe men in and let them at it and he picked an attacking side spearheaded by Shane Long was notable for the presence of football's equivalent of a sing off between Arter, McGoldrick and Quinn.

It was very clear from the start that very big motivational difference between the Dutch and O'Neill's team.

Irish players bit into tackles from the whistle and let it be known that this wouldn't be very friendly. Harry Arter was first in with a sliding cut on Kevin Strootman.

It wasn't quite Roy Keane v Marc Overmars but it set the tone.

What was also evident from the start was that Holland found it worryingly easy to control the ball and the game for long spells. With Glenn Whelan sitting, it was up to Arter and Stephen Quinn to hold midfield and the Dutch simply passed around them.

It was Quinn who broke the pattern, latching onto a loose ball in midfield and driving towards the Dutch penalty area after a 15 minutes chasing shadows but his need to impress added extra heft to his cross which flew over everyone.

But it was the right idea and when Holland tried to settle everything down again by holding the ball, Ireland's urgency increased, along with the tackle rate.

Arter had a long shot from 25 yards which deflected into Jasper Cillesen's arms and then came the breakthrough.

There was nothing pretty about the goal when it came but set-pieces were a strength during qualifying and it is good to see that O'Neill's team has not forgotten how to apply maximujm prtessure in dead-ball situations.

A pacey corner from the left from Robbie Brady on the half-hour was met with a thumping header by John O'Shea and the ball flicked off Cillessen, onto Vincent Janssen's hand and was then bundled over the line by Shane Long.

It was a good time to score and finally created the kind of buzz you might expect in the Aviva during the last game before France.

No substituions at half-time with O'Neill keen to give his borderline candidiates as much time as they needed to impress.

That in itself was telling. The sight of Aiden McGeady warming up at half-time seemed to tell us that he is on the plane come what may.

If there was a doubt in O'Neill's head, surely he would have been on from the start?

Into the second-half and much better possession for Ireland with more pressure on the Dutch penalty area which could have produced at least one more goal.

The best chance fell after another Brady corner in the 52nd minute which caused chaos among the Dutch defenders. The ball as headed back towards the unmarked Walters but his header was poorly directed.

Perhaps Dutch minds were now firmly leaning towards the prospect of soft sand and summer cocktails but they were given a lifeline by O'Neill's decision to clear his bench.

In came Darron Gibson, James McClean, Wes Hoolahan, Jeff Hendrick and finally Eunan O'Kane.

It didn't do Ireland defensive solidity any good at all and with the Dutch beginning to grow into the game again, it was a defensive blunder which eventually gave them an equaliser.

Jetro Willems found some space wide on the right and whipped in a cross which Luke de Jong, only on the pitch a matter of minutes, headed past Darron Randolph from close in.

Ireland kept pressing and might have snated a winner but few could argue with the result in the end.

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