Despite an impressive scoreline Ireland still seem stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Given the context of a largely failing qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 this fixture against Gibraltar was vital to keep the show on the road. That it came after a most unexpected helping hand from Georgia who turned over a confident Scottish outfit meant that Ireland, almost despite themselves, had wrestled control back in the hunt for at least a playoff place.
While the result was never in doubt the margin of victory and team performance in balmy Faro was integral to restoring the shattered confidence of the Boys in Green. To that end it is debatable as to whether this has been achieved or for that matter if we are any closer to identifying Martin O’Neill’s vision as the impressive margin of victory could not mask the feeling that we still resemble a team without a plan.
And whatever plan there was had to change just before kick-off as the starting line-up included Derby County left-back Cyrus Christie, replacing Seamus Coleman who was not risked due to a hamstring strain. As expected Ireland came out of the blocks quickly and had several good chances that if scored would probably have settled nerves. But with Ciaran Clarke’s header hitting the bar and Jon Walters’ goal ruled out for offside the consummate ease with which we swatted Gibraltar back in Dublin was sadly lacking.
As ever Wes Hoolahan pulled the strings though he did seem a little more profligate with his final ball than usual, as if all his energy had been sapped by the time the killer through ball was to be dispatched. So although Ireland were completely in charge by the half way point an air of desperation began to seep into their play. Thankfully the opening goal was soon to arrive and from an unlikely source, namely a defender who hadn’t scored in over 90 games.
Cyrus Christie gave a great showing on his debut against the USA late last year and he continued that momentum throughout this game (save for a comically bad pass that almost let the Georgians in). On 26 minutes he cut in from the touchline with seemingly nothing on, before slaloming through several defenders and dispatching a sweet shot from the outside of his right boot inside the far post. It was a clever and instinctive piece of play and bodes well for Ireland’s cover in that position if Seamus Coleman is unavailable.
Following Christie’s intervention Irish nerves appeared to settle momentarily with Jon Walters hitting a delightful half volley from 30 yards that was just tipped over by the Gibraltar keeper Jordon Perez. Unfortunately it was a short respite for Ireland as they disappointedly began to sit back into a holding position for the remainder of the first half and while Gibraltar weren’t exactly knocking down our door they were moments, such as when Given needed to be at his best to parry a Liam Walker long range effort, of near anxiety.
Thankfully the game was over as a contest within first 5 minutes of the restart as Robbie Keane added goal 66 and 67 to his remarkable international tally. The first goal was made by the ever willing Jon Walters who turned neatly just outside the 18 yard box before racing towards goal. His eventual cross looked tame but it took a series of deflections off several Gibraltar bodies and the post before squirming to the grateful feet of Ireland’s talisman.
Within 90 seconds Keane had his second from the penalty spot after Wes Hoolahan was clipped inside the box. At this stage it appeared as if Ireland might even surpass their Dublin return against the part-timers but the game then entered its most unstructured phase with the Boys in Green doing little to give us hope that they can take a game by the scruff of the neck. There were plenty of long balls and while a good quota of them reached their target it was far from pretty on the eye.
With so much play in the sky the midfield duo of James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan were largely anonymous with the young Evertonian troublingly unable to stamp his authority on proceedings. One wonders what a more creative player beside him might do for his contribution because at the moment he offers little more than a younger version of what Whelan does.
Thankfully Ireland did produce one more goal and it came via a pinpoint cross from the industrious, if a tad perfunctory, Jeff Hendrick. His flighted ball was met by the leaping Shane Long and his thunderous downward header left the Gibraltar net minder with little chance. Long’s celebration was intense which suggested that he has been feeling the pressure to increase his goal return, which at 13 is pretty decent for a player with plenty of miles left on the clock. Long deserves his chance against Georgia but whether Martin O’Neill is thinking along the same lines remains to be seen.
All told this was not a satisfying performance, though it yielded a decent return of goals. There’s no escaping the feeling that Ireland remain the unfinished article, and while you can never accuse the players of not putting in the effort we are a long way short of being a cohesive unit with a defined gameplan. Given the 3 tests on the horizon against Georgia, Germany and Poland things need to click into place sooner rather than later.
Gibraltar: Jordan Perez, Jean Carlos Garcia, Erin Barnett, Roy Chipolina (c), Joseph Chipolina, John Sergeant (85), Liam Walker, Anthony Bardon, Kyle Casciaro (Jake Gosling 61), Lee Casciaro, John Paul Duarte (Michael Yome 74).
Republic of Ireland: Shay Given, Cyrus Christie, John O’Shea, Ciaran Clark, Robbie Brady, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy (Stephen Quinn 70), Jeff Hendrick, Jon Walters, Wes Hoolahan (Aiden McGeady 77), Robbie Keane (c) (Shane Long 70).
- Author: Kevin Dunphy