Monday 22 January 2018

Shane Long's beauty downs World Champions Germany and guarantees play-off spot

8 October 2015; Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Germany. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
8 October 2015; Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Germany. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

What a night, what a magical night.

Just when we all needed a reminder that Ireland’s national soccer team have heroes to cherish after all, Shane Long’s 70th minute goal that secure an epic victory against world champions revived memories of all that was great about this game.

Big Jack’s glory nights were like this, as were the few Mick McCarthy oversaw and for a whole new generation, this is what it feels like. Get in!

The scenes at the final whistle brought a tear to the eye. The stands were alive again. Come on you boys in green. Ok, we all got a little carried away, but why not. This was special.

Quite how this happened is a story that is hard to explain, but the final scoreline of this game and the 2-2 draw between Scotland and Poland in Glasgow means we are in the Euro 2016 play-offs at the very least. Now we only need a point on Sunday in Poland to qualify for real.

With Ireland boss Martin O’Neill selecting Burnley’s Stephen Ward to contain the threat of Mezut Ozil on the left side of his defence and Cyrus Christie charged with containing Marcos Reus on the left flank, the notion that this Euro 2016 qualifier was anything more than a horrible mismatch and the opening exchanges did little to dampen that pessimism.

The huge roar that echoed around a packed Aviva Stadium as a green shirted player got a touch on the ball 117 seconds into a game that started with predictable German domination summed up the mood of the occasion. We all knew Ireland were out of their depth here, but this was still an occasion to savour.

It’s not often that the reigning world champions come to Dublin with qualification for a major finals very much in Ireland’s grasp with two games left to play and as new filtered through that Poland had taken at lead against Scotland in Glasgow, the bigger picture could be appreciated despite the gulf in class between the two sides on show.

A defeat for the Scotland against the Poles was enough to give Ireland a place in next month’s Euro 2016 play-offs at the very least and if another full-house gathers for that fixture next month, we need not fear that the opposition will be anywhere near as fearsome as this.

Quite how Ireland were not behind in an opening 16 minutes that saw Germany boast an 81% possession rate was a mystery. Jerome Boateng missed a free header in the box after some woeful defending from a set-piece, John O’Shea’s despairing challenge defected Ilkay Gundogan’s effort over the bar and Richard Keogh’s despairing leg denied a certain German goal after 16 minutes.

It was backs to the wall stuff, as we knew it would be and after Ozil was adjudged to be off-side after 19 minutes when the ball finally found a way into the Irish net, the fantasy that mission impossible could yield some reward was floated.

You could not fault the Irish effort. James McCarthy was turning in a terrier like performance in the heart of the midfield, Wes Hoolahan was the one player who looked to have the ability to hold onto the ball for an length of time and while the gulf in passing ability between the two sides was horribly evident, Ireland were still level.

Ozil flashed a shot past a stranded Shay Given four minutes before half time and it quickly became evident when the veteran keeper had not moved towards the ball, as he was stretchered off moments later with what appeared to be a leg injury.

O’Neill decision to send on Darren Randolph in his place and not David Forde – who was wearing the No.1 shirt on the bench – came as something of  surprise, with the Millwall keeper appearing to share the surprise as the TV cameras panned to him as the substitution was completed.

News that Scotland had drawn level against Poland was just as significant as the half-time whistle at the Aviva and somehow, Ireland’s clean sheet had remained intact.

Andre Schurrle missed a glorious chance to break Irish resistance when he found himself in space on in the box after 54 minutes, but his failure to keep his effort down fuelled Irish hopes that they could survive. Dare we say, they could even imagine more was possible.

Murphy’s stinging shot after 64 minutes was well wide of Manuel Neuer’s goal, but at least it was a glimpse of glory that Ireland needed to bolster their ambition and the hopes of the 50,604 fans packed into a stadium that confirmed it can produce an electrifying atmosphere for a soccer international when the time is right.

Then the impossible happened, as Long’s goal rocked Germany onto the ropes and the Aviva Stadium erupted in a manner that sent shivers down every spine. What a moment. This was Jason McAteer against Holland in 2001 all over again, but we still had 17 minute to hang on. Surely not.

Thomas Muller missed a glorious chance to draw Germany level after 77 minutes, replacement keeper Randolph was pulling off ridiculous saves to push us to the brink of euphoria and as the clock ticked down through towards the 90th minute, we all dared to dream.

News that Poland had equalised against Scotland made this perfect night even more perfect, if that was possible.

For those fortunate to witness this drama, it was moment they will never forget and now we have to hope we can have a final push over the finish line in Warsaw on Sunday.

Come on Your Boys in Green.

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