Martin on target
O'Neill gets proper test against Poland and momentum is now with Irish boss
MARTIN O'NEILL has momentum now, a precious commodity in international football. The only pity is that he has to put Ireland into mothballs until March when Ireland meet Serbia in a friendly.
On a night when old friendships were renewed in Poznan, O'Neill made seven changes and got a result. Best of all, he did it by playing the same high line which achieved so much against Latvia and worked against better opposition this time.
The return to Poznan provided many opportunities for moments of melancholy and Ireland found their Polish hosts in a similarly reflective mood after losing out in the race to Brazil and losing to Chile on Friday evening.
The Municipal Stadium looked less impressive without the dressing UEFA gave the venue for Euro 2012 and the pitch had enough divots in it to give Roy Keane pause for thought.
He, O'Neill and Seamus McDonagh got some hands-on experience when they tried a crossbar challenge before the squad arrived on Monday night and they cannot have been impressed with the surface.
The pitch has been lifted seven times since the stadium was completed but Ireland ran out onto the same grass they played on back in 2012 and it is overdue for some care and attention.
It seems like an age ago now since those fateful summer nights and without the vast ranks of Ireland fans in the crowd, it was a lot less welcoming on this occasion until Amhran na bhFiann came pumping through the PA system.
At that point, the Polish crowd rose and began a round of applause which lasted right through to the final note, a remarkably heart-warming gesture.
The cynics among us pointed out that the same people were still living off the cash they gathered from the green clad hordes that descended on Poznan in June 2012 and had every reason to raise a cheer for their guests.
It was a nice touch though and clearly appreciated by O'Neill and his staff and players.
Within 30 seconds of the start, however, Poland drove into David Forde's box and signalled their resolve that the open armed welcome didn't extend to the pitch.
Robert Lewandowski sprinted down the right and pinged in a low cross which Jakub Blaszczykowski missed by a whisker.The flag went up for an offside but Poland's intent was clear.
But O'Neill was true to his word about keeping the high line which was so successful against Latvia and after Poland's early threat was cleared, Ireland began to find space and possession.
And when the first chance arrived, it was virtually a carbon copy of Robbie Keane's opener against Latvia at the Aviva but with a different cast of characters.
Aiden McGeady whipped a corner in from the left which Jon Walters rose to meet at the near post and flicked into the six-yard box where Stephen Kelly, unmarked, pitched his header short and into the ground. The ball bounced up and over Wojciech Szczesny and the crossbar.
That came in the 19th minute and sparked a response from Poland. Paul Green cleared a dangerous cross a few minutes later which was heading for Lewandowski, but the ball broke to Blaszczykowski on the edge of the box. His shot was fumbled by Forde but gathered in at the second attempt.
By now, a pattern had established itself and it became obvious that O'Neill had misread the possibilities. It was Ireland and not Poland enjoying the lion's share of the ball with the home team reduced to pacey counter-attacks.
Sean St Ledger had to leave the pitch 31 minutes with an injury and he was replaced by John O'Shea who almost immediately incurred the wrath of the home crowd when he handled deliberately to stop another Lewandowski forward run.
The pitch by then was cutting up badly which may have had a part to play in St Ledger's early withdrawal. Certainly Marc Wilson caught his feet in divots on a couple of occasions as the game moved towards half-time and Forde had to be particularly careful about how he set himself up to take a back-pass.
Poland hit the ground running after the break and a mistake by Kelly allowed Blaszczykowski to sneak into the Irish penalty area with a mazy run which took him through James McCarthy's tackle and into the six yard box. A well-timed poke from O'Shea took the ball away from his feet.
Fifteen minutes into the second-half, O'Neill went to his bench and gave pushed Alex Pearce into defence and Wilson into midfield. James McClean replaced McGeady. McClean had an immediate impact with his first touch.
He gathered possession on the left and skinned Piotr Celeban before rifling a cross into the six-yard box. Both Long and Stokes were loitering with intent but couldn't get a touch.
Poland returned the compliment and piled forward.
Substitute Tomasz Jodlowiec shot inches over and signalled the beginning of a good spell for the Poles.
Waldemar Sobota fired in a cross from the left which Green did well to clear and Kelly had to be brave to intercept another dangerous cross with a diving header under Waters flying boot.
For the first time two hours of football under O'Neill, Ireland looked vulnerable but O'Shea marshaled his defence well and stood firm.
There was plenty of defending to do in the final quarter of the game. But by then Lewandowski had left the pitch and Poland had no real cutting edge.
O'Neill all but emptied his bench in the final fifteen minutes and while it did cause some disruption, Poland too lost their rhythm because of multiple substitutions.