Saturday 16 December 2017

O'Kane steps up to plate

Ireland 2 Slovakia 2

Shane Long celebrates after scoring Ireland’s opening goal from the penalty spot at the Aviva Stadium.. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Shane Long celebrates after scoring Ireland’s opening goal from the penalty spot at the Aviva Stadium.. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's James McClean is challenged for the ball by Slovkia's Ján Gregu. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's James McClean in action against Slovakia's Róbert Vittek. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Could Eunan O'Kane be the dark horse coming up on the rails and in with a chance of making Martin O'Neill's final 23?

The Bournemouth midfielder was the obvious winner against Slovakia after a 2-2 draw which saw a very different Ireland from the team which struggled but eventually beat Switzerland.

There was disappointment on the injury front again when Rob Elliott damaged his knee trying to stop Slovakia's lead goal and was stretchered off the pitch.

O'Neill cleaned out his remaining squad options by making a remarkable ten changes from the team which beat the Swiss on Good Friday.

His defence was unrecognisable, with John O'Shea restored to the team and the captaincy, flanked by Stephen Ward and Cyrus Christie but the big surprise was Paul McShane's selection alongside Ireland's skipper on the night.

Much has been made in the last week of the opportunity being given to fringe payers and young lads but veteran McShane is also pushing for a place in the squad.

He was the luckiest footballer in Ireland when Giovanni Trapattoni dumped Kevin Foley at the last minute in Montecatini four years ago and he's hoping to make a similar move this time.

By the time the final whistle sounded, he had an own-goal marked in the column against him and a patchy performance which can't have helped his cause.

Ciaran Clark was the big winner from the Swiss game and Cyrus Chrsitie was no slouch in this one. Both men, and even Shane Duffy, must now feel that they are ahead of McShane in the pecking order.

With Glen Whelan and James McCarthy anchoring midfield, the pattern of the game was immediately different from the first Easter friendly.

Wes Hoolahan's presence reduced long ball frequency considerably and Ireland kept possession much better.

Evidence of this arrived as early as the seventh minute when Hoolahan played a neat series of one-twos with O'Kane before putting Christie away down the right in space.

He cut an excellent cross to the back post, where Shane Long rose high but was off balance when the ball arrived and his header flew wide.


But it was a positive sign that Ireland were prepared to play some football, O'Kane very much involved in that process.

Slovakia were working to their own agenda though and in the 15th minute rocked Ireland back on their heels with a sharply executed breakaway goal.

Erik Sabo broke away on the right flank and flew towards the Irish penalty area before cutting a pass back to where Miroslav Stoch was waiting to bury the ball to Elliot's right.

It was a shock to the system but worse was to follow when Elliot failed to rise from his attempted save, clearly in some distress with his knee.

For the second successive game, a stretcher was needed for an Ireland player and like Kevin Doyle against Switzerland, this was a man O'Neill urgently wanted to see in action.

Darron Randolph stepped in and credit to Ireland, they knuckled down after Slovakia's goal and turned the game around dramatically via two penalty kicks won by Shane Long, the first born in Hollywood and the second on the street.

Long leaped theatrically after the mildest of touches from Matus Kozacik close to the left upright and Norwegian referee Ola Ober Nielsen surprised everyone when he pointed to the spot.

The Southampton striker stepped up, scored and within a few minutes, he was lying prone again, this time the victim of a clear trip by Martin Srktel.

McClean was given the task of converting the spot-kick this time and buried his penalty. Suddenly Ireland were in front and deservedly so.

The game dropped into a holding pattern after that, with Ireland on the ball most of the time while creating not very much but the half had a sting in the tail, and particularly for McShane.

Another break down the right on 44 minutes with Sabo again involved saw him slip a pass to Peter Pekarik who cut the struggling Stephen Ward out of the picture by playing in Hamsik.

A cut back to the near post was chased by Stoch but met by McShane and deflected into the net.

O'Neill sent on Robbie Brady and Alex Pearce for Long and O'Shea in the second half and they came into an Ireland team in control of the game.

Anthony Pilkington was the next to take a bow, replacing O'Kane who received a clear indication of his performance on the night via an appreciative round of applause from the crowd.

He was definitely the star turn on the night and may have done exactly what O'Neill asked for in the build-up to these friendly internationals

O'Neill wanted to leave the Aviva even more confused than he usually is because one or more of his fringe men had given him pause for thought.

O'Kane filled that role nicely and must now be a live prospect to gatecrash the Euro 2016 party.

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