Two games left, two points behind the group leaders and one point clear of second place.
Ireland’s passage to a play-off spot is now in their own hands. If that scenario was presented to Giovanni Trapattoni and most Irish football fans last September when Ireland started out on this qualification campaign it may not be a stretch of the imagination to guess that they would have grabbed it with both hands. Added to our second spot in the group table we also have arguably the easiest run in of the four sides still in the mix for the top two spots. Although Armenia’s win in Zilina may have to change some peoples assessment of how easy our fixture against Vardan Minasyan’s side will or will not be on October 11th in the Aviva Stadium.
As one former political leader was often heard say “we are where we are”, but most Irish football fans will be wondering which is more important, the destination or the journey.
In this case the destination is far less gruesome than the journey that took us to this point. The journey of the last two games in particular made very hard viewing for many.
Heading into the game against Slovakia last Friday night the optimism was palpable. There was a feeling that we had let the visitors off the hook in the reverse fixture in October of last year. The game finished one all but Ireland missed a penalty through Robbie Keane, and Keane was again guilty of squandering a glorious chance in the closing stages of that game to take all three points. Quite reasonably Ireland felt hard done by to leave Zilina with only one point. There was an air of unfinished business about Friday’s fixture. Unfortunately what transpired over the ninety minutes took most of the home support by surprise, and for all the wrong reasons. The game finished scoreless, which would have been a disappointment with the performance aside, but it was that performance that left so many deeply disenchanted.
So many of our regular performers were way below par. Kevin Doyle, who is usually a guaranteed seven out of ten performer at the very least, had one his worst games in a green shirt, in addition he appeared frustrated and annoyed. Aiden McGeady, John O’Shea and the midfield duo of Glen Whelan and Keith Andrews were way below the standard required on the night. Individual failings are one thing but the lack of collective design or game plan was galling. One a night where we should have been taking the game to the opposition our midfield showed no desire to take the ball from the back four and direct affairs. For all that was wrong on the night the hosts could have still won the day. It was through Damien Duff, a player who led on a night when few followed, that Ireland could have won all three points. On 74 minutes Duff sent a beautiful cross in with his left foot to Robbie Keane who was lurking at the back post. The Slovakian defence were caught flat footed, the ball dropped invitingly to Keane who is no more than eight yards out. Keane only had to direct the ball either side of the Slovakian goalkeeper Mucha with his head. What followed only drew howls of derision from the home support in the Aviva, howls that would have made a sailor blush. The visitors themselves could also have taken the win if it wasn’t for a heroic block by Sean St. Ledger.
For Tuesday’s game in Moscow there were some fanciful predictions that Ireland could win the game, that our away performances have been far superior than our efforts at home under Trapattoni and that had to be a factor. What followed on the night was an onslaught on Shay Given’s goal. The Aston Villa custodian reminded all that he is a world class keeper, if reminding was indeed necessary. Even better than Given on the night was Richard Dunne. The centre half turned in one of the finest defensive performances in an Irish shirt for years. It was a performance of the magnitude that it should quite rightly be spoken in the same terms as Paul McGrath’s in the Giants Stadium some seventeen years ago. Worthy of a mention too is Darren O’Dea. The defender who is currently on loan at Leeds Utd was out of necessity thrown in at the deep end and into the lion’s den that was the Luzhniki Stadium. O’Dea was shoulder to shoulder with Dunne in repelling what seemed to be an irresistible Russian attacking force which was skilfully orchestrated by Andrey Arshavin.
The game somehow finished scoreless. Quite rightly Dick Advocaat and his Russian charges will feel very hard done by, but finished scoreless it did and Ireland left with a point.
Going into the last two games of this campaign it’s probably fair to say that Slovakia may not be as good as many may had thought, and equally Armenia could well be better than many had thought. Ireland’s draw in Moscow gave Giovanni Trapattoni’s side their seventh consecutive clean sheet, an Irish record. A commendable feat indeed, but it is at the other end that the boys in green will need improve things if they are going to achieve qualification for Euro 2012.