Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - DANIEL McDONNELL

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

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