herald

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Chill factor a major issue

Moldova latest side from eastern bloc to try and frustrate Irish

Richard Dunne (r) celebrates his goal with Kevin Kilbane (c) and Keith Andrews during the World Cup 2010 qualifying draw with Bulgaria at Croke Park in March 2009
Richard Dunne (r) celebrates his goal with Kevin Kilbane (c) and Keith Andrews during the World Cup 2010 qualifying draw with Bulgaria at Croke Park in March 2009
The Moldova squad train at the Aviva Stadium last night ahead of this evening’s World Cup qulaifier

They come from the east but they don't come bearing gifts, only problems.

Tonight at Lansdowne Road stadium, Ireland will once again do battle with a side who were once behind the Iron Curtain.

Moldova at home is the sort of game that the Republic of Ireland should win. Ireland are well ahead of them in the rankings (122 places between the two nations in the FIFA rankings), Ireland are close to full strength while an already-weak Moldova, demoralised after six losses in eight games, flew in to Dublin missing six players.

But here is where Ireland struggle, when a side from the old eastern bloc come to town and bring forth a mixture of frustration and misery.

"Teams do to us in Dublin what we do to other sides: they frustrate you, leave you no space, they sit in deep," says Kevin Kilbane, a veteran of many of those hard battles.

"As time went on, these east European teams became more organised. Everyone in the team knew they job, they had better coaches, so we used to struggle against them.

"If you are up against a Zidane or a Ronaldo you want to make an impression, you know what they bring so you try and get around them, you are trying to stop them. But Moldova in Dublin will be trying to stop us playing. And it's not easy."

For long, long spells in the history of the national team is was those away games, in Moscow and Warsaw and Sofia where we suffered.

Some of the worst days in the Mick McCarthy era came in the east: Skopje (twice), Moscow. In contrast, McCarthy's side had enjoyed, by and large, their home games with Slavic countries, especially the stunning home wins over Croatia (1998) and Yugoslavia (1999).

Times have changed and, of late, the Republic have managed to travel east and propser. The success in the playoffs for Euro 2012 and Euro 2016 was built on a foundation of a positive result in away games in the first leg: Estonia and Bosnia.

In Armenia (2010), Macedonia (2011), Kazakhstan (2012) and Georgia (2014), the team managed to come away with wins, while the draw away to Russia (for Euro 2012) was the Miracle of Moscow.

But at home? The nerves set in, the crowd get anxious, the away side grow confident and we end up biting our nails and hoping.

A glance at our record at home to sides from the former eastern bloc , looks respectable on paper: 15 games, just two defeats. No reason to panic, so.

But some of those games saw Ireland really struggle. Under Trap, Ireland failed to win at home to Bulgaria, Montenegro and Slovakia.

Ireland did win at home, under Trap, to Georgia (2009), Macedonia and Armenia (2011) but each one of those wins was tense.

In that 2009 duel with the Georgians, Ireland had gone a goal down after only a minute, only drew level with a very, very generous penalty 19 minutes from time, and then had Robbie Keane to thank for nicking an 87th minute winner.

That was a half-decent Georgian side, with players drawn from clubs in Serie A, the English Premier League and the Bundesliga.

Armenia didn't have those big names when they came to Dublin in October 2011, the last game in the group stage where a vibrant young Armenian side still held out hopes of making the playoffs at Ireland's expense.

Ireland froze, but got there, only thanks to huge donations of good fortune: Armenia's keeper was, incorrectly, sent off after 25 minutes (it should have been a free out), his replacement was a rookie making his debut who had a stinker, Armenia scored a bizarre own goal.

A young man from Shakhtar Donetsk called Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored Armenia's goal that day but even then he was little known, like his team-mates. They played for clubs like Khimki, Sanat Naft and Metallurg Donetsk. No fame but lots of talent.

The curse lives on: last year it took a sloppy and fortunate goal from a full back, Seamus Coleman, to give Ireland a win over Georgia which they scarcely deserved.

The Moldovans also travel without glamour in their baggage. Their players tonight earn their wages with clubs such as Zaria Balti, Petrocub-Hincesti and Speranta Nisporeni.

But Kilbane insists that arrogance is not a factor. "I never felt that way when I played against one of the so-called lesser teams. I'd never think I could take it handy just because of the opposition."

The veteran Kilbane feels that Moldova's players can mould into a unit, to Ireland's annoyance.

"If you dropped any of the Moldovan players into an Ireland training session they'd look like a fish out of water, they would struggle to keep up with the pace and tempo," Kilbane told The Herald.

"But, if you do your job in a team, know your role and stick to your position, you can make it difficult for someone else and that's what they do.

"No matter who we play. I can't remember too many home games where we were comfortable, especially since I finished playing, I haven't see a home match that was a comfortable watch."

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