TERRIBLE IN TBILISI
IT started well and ended badly. That was the story of Ireland’s night in Tbilisi and the fear is that it will become the tale of their attempts to reach next summer’s World Cup in Russia. The result is a setback, but it’s the performance that should set the alarm bells ringing. Georgia may be a better team than their world ranking suggests, yet they are not as good as Ireland made them to look for long periods of this game. Martin O’Neill said beforehand that ball retention was key in the warm conditions. Ireland failed in this department, and there were moments of panic followed by aimless punts into the sky that painted a deeply troubling picture.
Results have justified the means in this campaign. O’Neill could argue that a point in Tbilisi is a reasonable result in isolation. But while Ireland remain unbeaten in 2017, they have drawn all three competitive games to squander the position they worked themselves into by winning in Vienna last November.
Serbia come to Dublin on Tuesday with a two-point lead, and that is a game that Ireland need to win or else they will be nervously looking over their shoulder as Group D reaches its climax.
O’Neill’s second-half changes reflected the desperate need to come home with all three points. Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter were sacrificed for Aiden McGeady and Daryl Murphy as Ireland concluded the game with Robbie Brady and James McClean as their central midfield two. They created openings that would have maintained their 100pc record against their hosts, with McClean wasting the best of them.
But any regrets in the post-mortem should centre on the loss from a momentum from a fabulous start, a familiar Irish tale.
The last act of June’s qualifier with Austria was a controversial disallowed goal where Shane Duffy made a nuisance of himself. Three minutes into this game, the balance was squared up. Jon Walters, who was passed fit to play on the right side of midfield, won a free-kick with his experience. Whelan looked for it to be taken quickly, but the instruction from O’Neill was to send it into the box. Cyrus Christie did just that and with Ciaran Clark adjudged to have stayed on the right side of the law in blocking the path of keeper Giorgi Makaridze, Duffy was able to secure his first international goal.
That was the high point of the half as a familiar script played away. Granted, O’Neill’s instincts were correct in terms of the need to get the ball into the penalty area because the Georgians never looked comfortable. The problem for Ireland was working themselves into that position as they sat off against a side that was technically better and braver in possession. We had seen this movie before.
Ten different leagues were represented in the hosts’ starting XI; their respective football journeys have taken them to a variety of places. But there was a unity and clarity of purpose in their play that was lacking. And eventually, they got their reward. Ireland could point to near misses as they initially kept the white shirts at bay reasonably comfortably, and McClean could have doubled the advantage with a header from a superb Walters cross.
Georgia continued to probe, with Spartak Moscow’s Jano Ananidze — who sees very little action for his club — the most accomplished player on the park. There was no surprise that he was pivotal to the equaliser, dropping into the pocket between subdued skipper Whelan and Arter to draw Cyrus Christie out of position and tee up San Jose Earthquakes’ Valeri Kazaishvili for a thoroughly deserved leveller. Georgia had 76pc possession before the break and it was not a misleading stat in terms of the balance of play.
Ireland’s lone striker Shane Long was isolated for spells, with Brady struggling to offer support from the central attacking berth. McClean was strangely quiet. Duffy did test Makaridze from a Brady corner that again exposed Georgia’s defensive inadequacies, but Ireland desperately needed the solace from the half-time whistle.
Ananidze threatened from the restart, yet as the minutes ticked by, the Georgians did lose their shape. If analysis of this game boiled down to clear chances, then the Irish camp could try a spin an argument in their favour. Christie was emboldened as the game became stretched and sent over a cross that Long should have done better with.
McGeady, the hero of three years ago, kept hold of the ball to embark on a couple of runs that gave Ireland opportunities where they had men over. Georgia showed their tendency to burn brightly and then fade as spaces appeared and the pace of Long created a glorious chance for McClean but a heavy touch allowed Makaridze out to block and the moment had passed. The signal for an additional four minutes offered hope, but Ireland couldn’t muster up the energy to produce another of similar quality, with McGeady swiping at a ball that dropped his way. This time, there would be no lucky escape.
Ireland will need more than good fortune to take down Serbia on Tuesday.
Shane Duffy scores Ireland’s goal in the Group D World Cup qualifier against Georgia in the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi. Photo: David Maher