A rousing second half performance gives Ireland a deserved, albeit slim, win against Georgia.
A second-half goal from Jon Walters, following a piece of individual brilliance from Jeff Hendrick, was sufficient to keep Ireland’s Euro 2016 hopes alive. After Scotland’s loss in Tbilisi three days earlier, it was imperative that Ireland capitalised by securing the three points. Seamus Coleman returned to the team at right back in what was an otherwise unchanged starting 11 from the win away to Gibraltar.
Martin O’Neill retained the same formation with a diamond-shaped midfield to accommodate Wes Hoolahan in a creative role behind Walters and Robbie Keane. The absence of conventional wingers would place the onus on Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady to get forward along the flanks.
Tentative first period
Ireland started the game tentatively, but carved out a good chance in the sixth minute when Brady clipped a ball to the back post to find Keane in space. However, the Irish captain’s first touch was poor and he smashed the resulting half-volley over the bar. Georgia looked more comfortable in possession and put together some decent passages of play. On 11 minutes Levan Mchedlidze was sent clear, but scuffed his shot with his weaker right foot. A second opportunity for the visitors fell to Tornike Okriashvili in the 24th minute but his overhead kick flew wide.
Not for the first time in this group Ireland looked like a team that was unsure of how to take the game to their visitors. It was notable that Georgia’s defenders had a lot of time on the ball and this situation was compounded by Ireland’s narrow shape in midfield. There was an abundance of space in front of Coleman and Brady, which a better team might have exploited. A rare spark of creativity arrived before the half-hour mark when Hendrick clipped a delightful ball over the top of the Georgian defence for Keane to run onto but the goalkeeper intercepted it before the 67-goal man. Ireland’s best effort of the first half arrived in the 37th minute when Coleman hit a rasping shot from the edge of the box which was saved.
Increased energy in second half
Martin O’Neill made a critical decision at half-time to replace Robbie Keane with Shane Long. Keane had struggled against the big Georgian centre-halves and O’Neill’s decision was assuredly based on the hope that Long’s pace and mobility would allow Ireland to stretch the opposition defence. And the Tipperary man’s introduction certainly coincided with an increased sense of urgency. Ireland pressed higher up the field and this provided more scope for Coleman and Brady to get forward in support of the attacking play.
A succession of Irish efforts came thick and fast in the early part of the second-half. Coleman went close on two occasions, whilst Nukri Revishvili saved a long-range effort from Glen Whelan. Revishvili then had to make improvised saves on the hour mark, first from a deflected shot by Hendrick, then from a Walters header. After a quiet first-half James McCarthy became more prominent in the second, getting forward and providing more aggression in the tackle. In the 63rd minute an opportunity presented itself to him but he blazed his shot over.
Ireland on top
At this stage,the Boys in Green were clearly in the ascendency and their persistence paid off when Walters scored the all-important goal in the 69th minute. He owed much to the skill of Hendrick who went past two defenders before eluding a third with a subtle feint and then providing a low pass into the six-yard box for Walters to apply the finish. It was the second time in this campaign that Hendrick made a decisive contribution after he provided the assist for John O’Shea’s equaliser in Germany.
Shortly afterwards Glen Whelan was booked for questioning a decision by the referee and as this was his second yellow card of the campaign it will rule him out of the next game against Germany. James McClean also received a warning after a clumsy tackle in what was his first involvement after being introduced as a substitute. As it was also McClean’s second booking of the campaign this means he’ll join Whelan in the stands for Ireland’s penultimate fixture.
Georgia down to 10
Ireland had a great opportunity to double their lead after 77 minutes when a gap opened in the centre of the Georgian defence that allowed Glen Whelan to race through. However, the Stoke midfielder decided to check his run when he might have been better advised to shoot. This move was followed up with a low cross from McClean that was finished weakly by Long. The Irish team inevitably retreated in the final 15 minutes, although Georgia never really looked like scoring. Indeed, Georgia’s hopes of an equaliser were dealt a blow when their big centre-forward Mchedlidze was forced to leave the field with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. As they had already made their three substitutions Georgia played out the remainder of the game with ten men.
Relief and thoughts of Germany
The final whistle was met with relief by an Irish crowd which has enough painful memories of late goals conceded in crucial qualifying games. That said this was far from a convincing performance even if the second half represented a significant improvement. The introduction of Shane Long was key to the victory with the Southampton man’s energy permeating through the team and allowing Ireland to press Georgia in the right parts of field.
After almost two years of uncertainty about his preferred starting 11 one ventures that Martin O’Neill might finally be stumbling upon his best line-up. Having spent most of the qualifying campaign on the Irish bench Shane Long’s pace and energy may be called upon in an attempt to stretch the German defence in four weeks’ time. However, the loss of Whelan for that fixture is a blow when one considers that Ireland will need players capable of breaking up Germany’s inevitable dominance of possession. Whilst the Stoke midfielder has his critics it is worth noting that he was injured three years ago when Germany ran riot in Dublin. He was also absent for Ireland’s only defeat of this campaign away to Scotland. In this regard, the most challenging question for Martin O’Neill to deal with in the aftermath of the win against Georgia is what the composition of his midfield will be next time out.
Achieving six points from this double-header and a series of favourable results in the other group games has left Ireland in a position with their destiny is in their own hands. Securing a play-off place would represent a satisfactory outcome, something that looked unlikely three months ago after the home draw against Scotland.
Republic of Ireland: Shay Given, Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Ciaran Clark, Robbie Brady, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, Wes Hoolahan (James McClean 75), Jon Walters, Robbie Keane (Shane Long 45)
Georgia: Nukri Revishvili, Ucha Lobzhanidze, Solomon Kverkvelia, Alexsandr Amisulashvili, Giorgi Navalovsky, Guram Kashia (Mate Tsintsadze 76), Zurab Khizanishvili (Levan Kenia 81), Tornike Okriashvili Jaba Kankava, Valeri Kazaishvili (Giorgi Papunashvili 65), Levan Mchedlidze
- Author: Alan Hannify