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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.