Saturday 25 November 2017

Surreal victory is Marton O'Neill's defining moment

With a patched-up back four, a sub goalkeeper, Ireland delivered the first really big display of the last decade


WE waited two years for it but Martin O'Neill's side finally came of age in Dublin last night.

With a goal which Jack Charlton could have claimed a copyright on, an Irish side with a patched-up back four, with a sub keeper who is a reserve at West Ham, Ireland delivered the first really big performance of the last decade to put a trip to France in 2016 within reach.

A place in the playoffs secure - Scotland are out of contention and going nowhere next summer after their draw at home to Poland last night - this Ireland side can skip the playoffs and advance to France with a win in Warsaw on Sunday.

A few months ago, Ireland beating the classy Poles away would have seemed fanciful. But so was a win over the world champions and now, seeing as the long-absent spirit is back in the Irish side, anything is possible.


The imperative was in some part sucked from this game even before the Spanish referee tooted his whistle to kick off proceedings in front of 50,604, the biggest attendance in this ground for some time.

A draw would be enough for the Germans so they had no need to launch themselves at the home side - little did they know that with Long's second half goal they would need to throw the kitchen sink at Ireland with no joy.

And even Ireland knew beforehand that even with a heavy loss here, they could - depending on how Poland and Scotland fared - still stay in the race for France 2016.

An Ireland win here would have lessened the importance of events in Glasgow and ensured a playoff place at least for the Republic. But Germany lose very few European Championship qualifiers and don't lose them to national teams who draw five of their starting XI from the second tier of the English game, which makes this win last night all the more remarkable.

Of course Martin O'Neill's team selection raised a lot of eyebrows, with Stephen Ward restored to the starting XI after a spell out in the cold, while the selection of Daryl Murphy as the striker was also a big call by O'Neill.

Leaving Robbie Keane out of the starting XI was something that was expected of O'Neill but Long must wonder what he has to do to get more than a bit part, though we knew the second half could see the Tipperary man summoned from the bench, and indeed the arrival off the bench of Long on 65 minutes sparked a reaction from the crowd that's usually reserved for James McClean.

And with his 70th minute goal, Long delivered the answer. That he can deliver.

Players like Stephen Hunt in the past, and Long of more recent times, get frustrated with being depicted as mere 'impact players'. Long's 57-cap international career has often been one of frustration for the Southampton man.

But from the early stages of this battle, we could see that defence, not attack, was the issue for Ireland in terms of whether O'Neill made the right call with the selection of Murphy ahead of Long or even Keane. For the first 20 minutes, Germany basically owned the ball, ripping through Ireland time and again, though the side who only needed a draw to advance to France 2016 lacked that clinical edge when faced with Shay Given's goal.

It was all about last-gasp blocks instead of Beckenbauer-style calm defending, Richard Keogh earning his keep on 15 minutes when Mats Hummels stroked in a cross which caused more than mild panic for home fans.


Keogh, winning only his eighth senior cap, was kept alert by John O'Shea's urgings, their coverage needed as Cyrus Christie at right back was having a very tough night.

Manuel Neuer was having a very quiet night, though he had to stay sharp when Christie sneaked in a cross aimed at Jon Walters on 23 minutes while the closest Ireland came to scoring was 11 minutes before the break, a move orchestrated by Hoolahan, though the Germans survived without really breaking sweat.

Ireland supporters had more cause to sweat just before the break when Shay Given suffered a injury in the process of a goal kick and had to be replaced by Darren Randolph, the Wicklow man on for his competitive debut.

Time and again, this makeshift Irish back four had to defend for their lives, and it was again all about those all-important blocks. Robbie Brady pulled one off to deny Marco Reus, and Ward put in a tackle to cut out sub Andre Schurrle a minute later, denying what looked like a certain goal, Ward injuring himself in the process.

And then, a minute later, we had it, Long's goal. Not a thing of beauty and a reminder of the Charlton era - big punt up from the keeper, one touch from the striker and a goal - but a thing to behold with Irish eyes, the German players clearly shocked to be a goal down in Dublin, a city where they triumphed 6-1 last time around.

The Germans, upset that their planned Oktoberfest in Dublin was not going to happen, spent the last 15 minutes camped in the Irish half, but that Irish back line protected Randolph and on the occasion when he was needed - to deny Boateng on 81 minutes - the West Ham reserve keeper did the needful.

The playoffs in the bag and automatic qualification a Warsaw win away, Martin O'Neill has finally eared his corn.

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