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Thursday 14 December 2017

Ireland's Euro bid still alive but only just

Robbie Brady, Republic of Ireland, celebrates after Shane Long scored their side's equalising goal
Robbie Brady, Republic of Ireland, celebrates after Shane Long scored their side's equalising goal

MARTIN O'Neill threw all his cash on the table and bet it all on green. It was brave, surprising and almost a disaster. Raise a glass to Shane Long, who hauled a point out of the fire

It will take time to digest but one thing is certain. Ireland's chances of reaching France next summer are in the hands of mathematicians.

Poland, Germany and Scotland now hold all the cards in the race to qualify and what looked like the easiest route ever to a major championship finals is now filled with potholes and no material to fix them.

Not the tiniest titbit leaked out about O'Neill's selection intentions, almost certainly because nobody knew them other than himself.

The suggestion doing the rounds over the weekend that O'Neill pulled Robbie Keane in the tunnel on the way out to the pitch in Parkhead to tell him he wasn't playing would be extraordinary if true.

It either suggests rampant indecision or an ice-cool temperament willing to wring the last ounce out of his squad until the last moment, even if it meant trampling on Keane's ego.

This time he had better news for his skipper if the decision went to the wire. He sent him out with Jon Walters for company and Wes Hoolahan pulling the strings. The line-up everyone wanted but few expected was on the pitch.

RESTORED

And if the heart was sad for David Forde, it was still a sight for sore eyes to see Shay Given restored to the position he occupied so well for long.

But it was the selection of Robbie Brady at left-full which raised eyebrows highest. Here was out and out attack with no apologies.

It didn't work too well at the start. On a blustery, cold evening you wondered why they were watering the pitch just before kick-off as the rain hammered down but the boss wanted it slick and slick it was.

Poland were slicker for the first ten minutes and pretty much owned the ball. It was almost as if Ireland set up for an away game, ready to counter but not quite sure of the clothes they were wearing.

It soon evened out though. Without either side producing anything resembling a chance during the opening blows, there was still plenty of urgency and endeavour. Increasingly, Ireland efforts were further up the pitch.

Hoolahan began to hum and popped up with the first real chance, a low shot which flew wide of the left post and offered encouraging signs.

With momentum edging towards Ireland and the home support rising to O'Neill's men, Poland silenced them in the most effective way possible and struck a crucial blow in the 26th minute.

Marc Wilson and Brady tried to block a neat interchange between Slawomir Pesko and Maciej Rybus but missed the tackle and the ball. Pesko slalomed into the penalty area and buried a curled shot around Given.

It was a hard blow to take. The 10,000 or so Poles in the crowd lit up, literally. Red flares wreathed the stadium in smoke and guaranteed a big fine from UEFA for the Poland FA.

Ireland were stunned though on and off the pitch and it took a full ten minutes for them recover their poise to the point where they could mount an attack.

O'Neill had a lot of work to do at half-time but he chose the leave the team he started with on the pitch and there was no noticeable lift in energy or effectiveness.

In fact, it was the persistent and increasingly blatant fouling on Coleman, Hoolahan and Keane which finally got the home crowd going.

An elbow in the face for Keane from Kamil Glik earned him a yellow card which could have been red but it also gave Ireland a free kick which almost delivered an equaliser.

From the free-kick, Brady gathered on the left and sent a cross flying towards the back post. A deflection almost directed it under but instead it grazed the post and was cleared.

As Polish voices lifted, John O'Shea realised the urgency of the situation and galloped forward, sending a message for his teammates.

Poland's response was to rattle into tackles even harder and by now, referee Jonas Eriksson was waving his yellow card like cheerleader.

Hoolahan, Coleman and O'Shea were already in the book but Poland's list of charges grew with Lukasz booked for hacking the legs from under Walters.

Wilson's stung Fabianski's hands with header in the 64th minute and suddenly Poland, choosing to back away and protect their lead, were under siege.

Coleman fired one in for Walters but his connection wasn't good enough and Fabianski saved..By now, Irish players were queuing up but it was harum-scarum stuff when cool heads were needed.

James McClean came on for McGeady and immediately made an impact, driving into the box and firing in a cross which Keane flicked against the post.

With ten seconds left on the clock, Shane Long, on the pitch as a last throw of the dice poked the ball home with his first touch after coming off the bench.

It was fully deserved after 20 minutes of relentless pressure and it just about saved Ireland's Euro 2016 hopes.

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