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Saturday 19 August 2017

Road to France still open - just

Subs work their magic to save Irish Euro 2016 dream

Arkadiusz Milik, Poland, in action against James McCarthy, Republic of Ireland. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Poland. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Arkadiusz Milik, Poland, in action against James McCarthy, Republic of Ireland. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Poland. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

POLAND'S sad history is filled with tear-stained chapters of glorious defiance but, ultimately, defeat against a foreign invader.

Last night at Lansdowne Road it was Ireland's turn to be the ones putting up a bit of fight - and this time saving their skins, as a late, late show from Shane Long means that Martin O'Neill's side are still, just about, in contention for France 2016.

The campaign was saved by a couple of substitutes as James McClean and Shane Long, off the bench, injected some life into an Irish side for whom Euro 2016 was looking like a distant dream, on a night when James McCarthy was again frustratingly, quiet and a shadow of the player he can be.

But to save the French dream Ireland now need to end years of domestic torment and deliver a big, big display against Scotland in Dublin in June.

When Ireland kick off a competitive international, sometimes one wonders what Giovanni Trapattoni is doing. Is he as far away from a TV as possible, spending time with his grandkids, or maybe watching Breaking Bad (just to see what all the fuss is about)?

Or is he sitting with the remote control clutched in hand, watching Ireland play and watching all those tricky names (he always had trouble pronouncing Hoolahan and O'Shea) to see how they are faring in his absence?

In defence of O'Neill, this XI last night was a team that Trap would never have picked and

Robbie Brady at left back was a big gamble. The Dubliner, winning only his 12th senior cap, had been battling with injury of late and is not a defender by nature. He was in the side, largely, on the basis of his ability from set-pieces.

To get free kicks you need to get into decent attacking positions and that was something Ireland struggled to do last night. A catch to deal with a deflected cross from Brady 42 minutes into the game was the first thing of note that Polish keeper Lukasz Fabianski had to do.

So Ireland were caught in between, in terms of Brady's contribution. Unable to get on the ball, or even tee up one of those free kicks which the likes of Ian Harte and Denis Irwin used to dispatch to the net at the old Lansdowne Road, Brady had to rely on his defensive duties.

And sadly Ireland were left exposed on 26 minutes, the Polish goal arriving as the Irish defence failed to cope. Brady was in a battle for possession with Maciej Rybus, and there was a clear winner from that tussle. Rybus earns his weekly wage with Russian side Terek Grozny, and while we'd hate to make assumptions about the hunger of a player who plays for a club in war-ravaged Chechnya, the Pole won the battle with ease, poking the ball into the path of Peszko, who came up with a superb finish to beat Given.

Straight away the questions came to mind about the selection of Brady and Given. But even with the strongest, most in-form side available, this Ireland side have struggled in Dublin of late and last night was another example of how Dublin is no longer a fortress where foreign invaders are filled with dread and fear. They all - Slovakia, Russia, Germany, now Poland - love coming to Dublin as they know they'll go home undefeated.

The days when world-class players like Butragueno, Overmars and Figo took one sight of the creaky old rugby ground beside a train track in Dublin 4 and became unwell with fear are long gone.

This Polish XI is not bursting at the seams with world-class talent - last night's team drew players from clubs like Lechia Gdansk, Al-Ittihad and a Legia Warsaw side who were almost beaten at home by St Patrick's Athletic in the Champions League last summer. Their goal-scorer last night had a very undistinguished spell on loan to Wolves.

But they do, as Zbigniew Boniek predicted ahead of the game, have two-three top-drawer players who can make a difference, and the defensive composure oif Kamil Glik with the midfield urgings of Grzegorz Krychowiak gave the away side an edge.

Ireland did try to react and a new shape to the side after the break - Jon Walters moved up front - offered some hope, that hope backed up early in the half when, first, a Brady cross came off the crossbar and soon after Marc Wilson forced a save from Fabianski with a header.

There was more of a threat from Ireland by now and the arrival of James McClean off the bench, as a sub for an out-of-sorts McGeady, injected some more life into the home side and Robbie Keane - a virtual bystander to this point - had a decent chance on 71 minutes from a McClean cross, while McClean didn't shirk from a clash with Arkadiusz Milik just after that.

And Ireland did deliver, very late in the game, Long netting a rare competitive goal by poking home in injury time after Hoolahan had flicked on Brady's corner. Late in the day and badly needed, but better is needed against the Scots in June.

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