herald

Thursday 30 October 2014

Second string strike a chord

David Villa's shot is saved by goalkeeper David Forde. Picture credit: Adrees Latif / REUTERS
Spain's Jordi Alba controls the ball in front of the Republic of Ireland's Seamus Coleman and Paul McShane. Picture credit: Mike Stobe / GETTY IMAGES

IT WON'T move Ireland an inch closer to Brazil and it was a friendly but some honour was restored in Yankee Stadium by a patchwork Ireland team with just two starters from that awful night in Gdansk a year ago.

Apprehension was the overriding feeling among most of those supporting Ireland before the game and the early moments of the match suggested that it could be a very long night indeed.

But a year is an awful long time in football and this time, Giovanni Trapattoni's promise that the World champions would not use Ireland as a punch-bag was backed up by young legs and young minds who faced the best footballers on the planet and did a better job than the old hands who were dominant in Trap's team in Poland.

In fact, but for a sharp-eyed linesman and an unfortunate touch from Simon Cox, this game could have ended very differently indeed.

After defending every ball and every silky attack sprung from Spain's Barca contingent in midfield, Ireland somehow managed to dig themselves out of the cul-de-sac created by the vastly superior technical skills they faced and somewhere found the energy to attack after Roberto Soldado broke the deadlock in the 68th minute.

Up to that point, Iniesta and Xavi ran the show and, at times, the ball seemed to blur in motion with the speed of movement and little flurries of pinpoint passing but on this occasion, Spain lacked the final killer pass which caused Trapattoni's team so much grief in Gdansk.

The signal for Ireland's late surge was when Trapattoni finally sprung James McClean from the bench and gave him clear instructions to take the fight to Spain. He did so immediately and forced Iker Casillas to make Spain's first serious save of the night in the 81st minute.

His shot acted like a shot of raw adrenaline and Ireland piled into the Spanish, winning a corner on the left which McClean swung towards the near post.

Stephen Kelly put his head to the ball and hit the underside of the post but crucially, Cox, in an offside position when the header went in, touched the rebound before Sean St Ledger bulldozed the ball in through a forest of Spanish legs.

Cue a massive celebration among the big Irish contingent in the 40,000 crowd and on the pitch.

St Ledger pumped the air, sure that he had scored an equaliser. But American referee Jair Marruffo and his assistant Eric Boria had spotted Cox's touch and the goal was disallowed. That knocked the stuffing out of Irish, who had done really well to retrench and start again after Soldado finally managed to convert Spanish possession into a goal. Alvaro Arbeloa flicked a pass from a few yards outside the Ireland box over James McCarthy's head and into Soldado's path. An instinctive swing and David Forde could do nothing.

Twelve months ago, Irish minds and bodies fell apart under a bewildering onslaught but not this time. If anything, they came back stronger and went looking for a goal.

It wasn't that Spain couldn't repeat their fabulous movement and passing from 12 months ago. If anything, they had more of the ball than they had in Gdansk and only desperate defending and determined concentration kept them out.

The knock-out blow was landed within minutes of St Ledger's disallowed goal. Vicente del Bosque had shuffled his deck and threw Juan Mata and Santo Cazorla into the action and they linked well for Spain's second goal.

Irish heads went down but when they finally scatter for their holidays this week, they will take some big positives away with them. There were top-notch performances from McCarthy, Forde, Séamus Coleman, St Ledger, Sammon and Stephen Quinn, who replaced Jeff Hendrick at half-time and did enough to suggest that Wes Hoolahan now has a rival for the role of creative midfielder.

Trapattoni now has new options and there does seem to be some movement away from the dogged adherence to his system. But that is mostly down to the players and talent in this young and hungry group. Perhaps Trapattoni will find a way to catch up over the summer.

Ireland: Forde (Randolph 74); McShane, St Ledger, O'Dea, Kelly (Delaney 90); Coleman, McCarthy (Meyler 85), Hendrick (Quinn 46), Keogh (McClean 74); Keane (Cox 57), Sammon.

Spain: Valdes (Casillas 59); Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos, Alba; Busquets; Silva (Navas 46), Xavi (Mata 69), Iniesta (Fabregas 59), Pedro (Cazorla 80); Villa (Soldado 59).

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