Ire­land’s luck deserts them as they fail to make clean get­away

Quick trans­for­ma­tion needed within side if O’Neill’s men are to out­shine Ser­bia Ge­or­gians out­pass and ut­terly out­play Ire­land for long pe­ri­ods of game

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer - Em­met Malone

Af­ter the man­ner in which they won some of the pre­vi­ous games they can have no com­plaints, but Ire­land’s luck fi­nally de­serted them in Tbil­isi on Satur­day night where de­spite some late pres­sure, they could not quite con­jure up another clean get­away.

In truth, if James McClean or Ai­den McGeady had nicked a win­ner in the dy­ing min­utes, which they might have, this would surely have been the great­est smash and grab of the lot.

By the end, it was not a ques­tion of putting a fin­ger on what had gone wrong. It was all on a rather grander scale than that. Their track record sug­gested that they might fail to dom­i­nate their op­po­nents for the en­tirety of the 90 min­utes and that re­tain­ing pos­ses­sion would, as it so of­ten does, prove a prob­lem but more than that, Martin O’Neill’s side were out­passed and ut­terly out­played for the bulk of the game.

Late on, there was at least some sort of re­vival and enough pres­sure to yield some clear-cut chances but an Ir­ish win would ul­ti­mately have been lar­ceny of the high­est or­der.

Early goal

Per­haps the kind­est take on it all is that Ire­land sim­ply fell vic­tim to an early goal. The odd thing ob­vi­ously be­ing that it was one of their own.

We will never know how things might have turned out had Shane Duffy had not headed the vis­i­tors in front just four min­utes in but once he did, Ire­land, it seemed, could not sur­ren­der ground or the ini­tia­tive fast enough.

By the end of the half, the lo­cals had more than three quar­ters of the pos­ses­sion while O’Neill’s men con­sis­tently strug­gled to string two passes to­gether.

That al­ways meant they would have to de­fend well but they didn’t. The Ge­or­gian full-backs suc­cess­fully gave the home side width that forced Ire­land wingers back and con­sis­tently stretched O’Neill’s back four.

In­side in the cen­tre, Spar­tak Moscow’s Jano Ananidze pretty much ran the show, with the 24-year-old look­ing end­lessly anx­ious to get on the ball and gen­er­ally ca­pa­ble of us­ing it very well.

His abil­ity to knock di­ag­o­nal balls to the ad­vanc­ing Otar Kak­abadze and Giorgi Naval­ovski was a thorn in Ire­land’s side from early on but he was much more than a one-trick pony and his low, through ball to Va­leri Kaza­ishvili 11 min­utes be­fore the break, carved up the vis­i­tors’ back four and left his team-mate with only Darren Ran­dolph to beat.

In the­ory, it fell to Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter to limit Ananidze’s, and Ge­or­gia’s, abil­ity to pose a threat from that part of the pitch but in prac­tice, the pair’s con­tri­bu­tion rarely amounted to very much. Both gave glimpses of what they should have been do­ing all night in the sec­ond half min­utes be­fore they were re­placed but nei­ther would have much a com­plaint if they are dropped for the Ser­bia game.

In­evitably, though, the man­ager’s lack of al­ter­na­tives mean it is much more likely that they will both be given chances to re­deem them­selves.

Duffy, in ad­di­tion to the goal he got, might have had a sec­ond from a Rob­bie Brady cor­ner just be­fore the break and McClean turned a header wide of the tar­get hav­ing ap­peared to have done the hard part by get­ting be­tween two de­fend­ers then up to meet Jon Wal­ters’s cross.

To dwell on those missed op­por­tu­ni­ties, though, or McClean and McGeady’s late on, would be to se­ri­ously mis­rep­re­sent the scale of the Ge­or­gian su­pe­ri­or­ity.

Fewer chances

Re­mark­ably, the hosts had fewer chances on goal than their op­po­nents but Ire­land’s run­away vic­tory on the de­fen­sive stats depart­ment – five blocks and 30 clear­ances – gave a sense of the real story. Ire­land were, for a good part of the game, sim­ply hang­ing on. Per­haps there is some small con­so­la­tion to be had in the fact that they did that, at least, quite ef­fec­tively.

The num­bers, mean­while, also pro­vide a pretty good idea of why they were on the back foot for so long with Ge­or­gia com­plet­ing al­most four times as many passes.

Quite how that con­tin­ues to hap­pen with th­ese play­ers when they are play­ing os­ten­si­bly in­fe­rior ones re­mains im­pos­si­ble to ex­plain.

Ul­ti­mately, Ge­or­gia cer­tainly jus­ti­fied the pre-match hype of “good sixth seeds” but be­yond that it was tricky to tell how much of what we were wit­ness­ing was them be­ing good and Ire­land be­ing aw­ful.

The two changes O’Neill made in the sec­ond half – McGeady for Arter and Daryl Mur­phy for Whelan who had started the night as cap­tain – cer­tainly im­proved things but in­evitably there were ques­tions af­ter­wards about whether Wes Hoola­han’s in­tro­duc­tion might have helped too.

Through the clos­ing stages, in any case, the game went from heav­ily one sided to breath­lessly open with scor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties fol­low­ing each other at dif­fer­ent ends of the pitch so quickly some­times that it was dif­fi­cult to keep up.

Be­wil­der­ing

The lo­cals had cer­tainly lost their way a lit­tle but, crit­i­cally, Ire­land had started to take the game to them in mid­field and stopped drop­ping quite so deep af­ter los­ing the ball. It is be­wil­der­ing why it all took so long.

When the end ar­rived the home crowd clearly, and not for the first time, felt their side de­served more from it all. Fi­nally, though, they got some­thing and though they have yet to get the win in this cam­paign that they crave, the point they took en­sures they have made a ma­jor im­pact on the course of the group.

With games against Aus­tria and Wales to come, O’Neill will be hop­ing they might so again but he has more press­ing prob­lems as he pon­ders how to en­gi­neer a trans­for­ma­tion of his team in just a cou­ple of days.

Vi­enna sud­denly seems like a very long time ago.

The num­bers pro­vide a pretty good idea of why they were on the back foot for so long with Ge­or­gia com­plet­ing al­most four times as many passes

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DAVID MA­HER/SPORTSFILE VIA GETTYIMAGES

Shane Long throws his jersey to Ire­land sup­port­ers at the end of the Group D qual­i­fier at Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbil­isi on Satur­day.

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