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Monday 11 December 2017

Emperor Giovanni laid bare

THAT timeless Hans Christian Andersen classic, 'The Emperor's New Clothes', sprung to mind as a modern-day debacle unfolded last night.

The spanking new Aviva Stadium, with its sweeping lines and space-age aesthetics, is an architectural triumph of style. But where is the substance? It wasn't on the pitch, sadly -- at least not from those denuded boys in green.

Ireland played like Andersen's buck-naked emperor: once you peeled away the flimsy facade of their expensive new home, they were left tactically exposed, technically in the nip, and displaying a bare midriff that was only asking for trouble.

Whoever dreamed up the DHL billboard slogan -- "Excellence. Simply Delivered" -- was obviously given a bum steer.

The Russian midfielders were fully attired, for sure; they were also ultra-fluent by comparison to the moving statues in Ireland's engine room.

All too often, Paul Green followed a ball-winning tackle with a ball-surrendering misadventure. Glenn Whelan laboured in the slipstream of assorted men in maroon -- most notably Roman Shirokov, wearing No6 and a pair of blue boots, who dictated the tempo of this oft-chaotic Euro 2012 qualifier.

When it was all over, the only wonder is that the scoreboard didn't have such a bare look to it. Was this the luckiest 2-3 defeat in recent soccer history? Yes, and no.

Yes, because the Republic were a beaten docket before being handed the unlikely escape route of a fortuitous penalty, won and converted by Robbie Keane.

No, because those frantic final 20 minutes confirmed something we had suspected during those misleadingly hopeful opening exchanges -- that the Russian defence and their Grobbelaar impersonator in goal were an accident waiting to happen, if only Ireland had the wit to capitalise.

Robbie's penalty out of nowhere looked soft in real time; the replay suggested he may have been tripped by an accidental coming together of legs. Either way, Ireland's record goalscorer picked himself up to send Igor Akinfeev the wrong way.

Soon after, Shane Long bundled home the second and the Russians on Tour (Havelock Square branch) were suddenly drowned out by an eruption of "Ole! Ole!"

All earlier press box speculations, concerning a heaviest home defeat since Denmark ended the Eoin Hand era, were abandoned. Now, all the rehashed intros were about the best comeback since Lazarus overcame a dead leg to net a 10-minute hat-trick in the Galilee Senior League.

But it was not to be. Ireland's late devotion to route-one did not merit anything so tangible as a priceless Group B point to take with us to Zilina on Tuesday.

Moreover, it could have been worse. Russia may have been fortunate with the pinball nature of their first goal and the wicked deflection (to a shot veering wide) that inspired their third ... but on the flip side, Ireland could have finished with 10 or even nine men.

Now, perhaps Kevin Doyle's scything yellow card lunge could be partly explained on the grounds of mounting frustration. But as for Sean St Ledger's earlier 'tackle' on Alan Dzagoev? Suffice to say, it was so fashionably late that it missed the last Dart home. And it may be entered in next year's National Ploughing Championships.

Maybe this defeat is the inevitable consequence of fielding a team that predominantly mingles Premier League bench-warmers with Championship journeymen, but Trap's men looked distinctly second division last night.

As for Giovanni, he was untouchable so long as his team kept winning. Now a more critical public will focus on those ultra-conservative tactics and his seemingly unflinching devotion to graft over craft.

He has brought Ireland a long way from the shambolic days of 'Stan', yet elements of this display were scarily reminiscent of those farcical times. Only 11 months have passed since Paris; in performance terms, this was light years removed.

The good news? Somehow, we're still top of the group. And the emperor was last spotted sporting a smart Italian suit.

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