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Thursday 23 November 2017

O'Neill learns little from icy blast

Ireland 0 Iceland 1
Republic of Ireland's Robbie Brady in action against Iceland's Rurik Gislason
Republic of Ireland's Robbie Brady in action against Iceland's Rurik Gislason

Minnows no more. Iceland put out their B team and it was good enough to beat Martin O'Neill's back up boys with some ease at the Aviva Stadium.

After the raw intensity and pain endured during the World Cup qualifier against Wales, this was two or three steps down and O'Neill cannot have learned much from the exercise.

Organised, disciplined and following the script which has brought this tiny nation such extraordinary success in France last summer, Iceland ended a three-year unbeaten run and presented a solid line of resistance to what was, to be blunt, a limp home performance.

A single goal decided the game, scored with a a sweet, curled free-kick by teenager Hordur Magnusson. It was one classy moment in a sea of mediocrity.

True to his word, O'Neill seeded his team with new faces and it is rare to see such a fresh-faced team at this level, friendly or not.

Necessary

The investment is usually worthwhile and last night, everyone was ready for a morale boost given events in the Aviva four days ago and the still bitter memory of Seamus Coleman clutching his leg.

Ominously, the brass ensemble who managed to deafen everyone during the Welsh game were positioned in front of the old South Terrace, ready to do their worst and assult the ears of the FAI's paying customers.

Is it really necessary to tell people when they should cheer?

Robbie Brady led out a team in which Aiden McGeady and Kevin Doyle together comfortably topped the combined caps total of the rest.

No surprise then that the opening moments were full of worthy effort with not a lot to show for it. Iceland were as reduced from their top team as Ireland.

Iceland's Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson shoots to score his side's first goal
Iceland's Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson shoots to score his side's first goal

Not that it was easy to tell. The stadium display could barely contain all the consonants. Sigur seems to have had a lot of sons.

The brightest spark during that opening spell was probably Jon Hayes, buzzing with intent down the left flank with its normal occupant, James McClean operating as a striker.

But it was harum-scarum stuff, full of mistakes and lost possession. In these situations, set-pieces are often decisive and Iceland are nothing if not capable when it comes to that area of the game.

The first chance they got, virtually their first serious move forward, Kjartan Finnbogason conned Danish referee Jakob Kehlet who gave a soft free-kick against John Egan, by then head swathed in a big bandage from an earlier clash.

Up stepped 18-year-old Iceland debutant Magnusson to clip a sweet free-kick around a ragtag Ireland wall and Keiren Westwood was caught flat-footed. Both the wall and the goalkeeper should have done better. The goal came in the 22nd minute which set a nice, prickly challenge for O'Neill's young guns and there was a decent response.

McClean and Brady both charged forward trying to find a gap in Iceland's white wall.

Given his club form and the impact he made at the end of the drawn game with Wales, it might have been hoped that McGeady would be the sharpest point of attack but apart from a couple of over-intricate dribbles, he was hardly in the game.

Ireland's best chance of the half came just after the half hour when McClean drove down the left and fired an early cross towards Kevin Doyle running towards the near post. The angle on his header was to shallow and the ball flew well wide.

O'Neill's half-time homily must have dealt with the fact that Iceland seemed completely comfortable with the ball, at ease building from the back whule his players found it hard to find any rhythm or accuracy.

As in the first-half, it was Hayes who began the second on the front foot, his best moment a flashing run and cross from the left which Magnusson made a meal of steering behind for a corner.

It was a sign of better things and Ireland's intent. McGeady moved into the middle and began to operate in a free role.

The main problem was Iceland's unwillingness to offer a glimpse of daylight in their penalty area and after 65 minutes, O'Neill dipped into his bench.

On came former Dundalk duo Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle to the biggest cheer of the night, and full-back Stephen Gleeson.

Iceland began to shuttle subs onto the pitch and the game lost whatever shape it had.

Unfortunately for O'Neill and Ireland, the men from the North didn't lose their cohesion and every attempt to break them down bounced off a determined six and often ten-man defence.

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