Well, it’s a positive that we’re not out of it yet and we’re not travelling to Wales for a dead rubber. And although meeting the top seeds away in Cardiff is obviously a totally different proposition to playing the bottom seeds at home, if we show the application and verve that we showed in the first half at Lansdowne, we still have a chance.
Being back in education has meant a change to my pre-match routine this last year and with DCU being my current port of call, it was Glasnevin that I made my way to Lansdowne from rather than the old walk down the canal. With a quick stop home to drop my bag off en route, I decided to hop the train rather than wander across. The bulk of the passengers on the DART were fans and I wound up having a quick yap about the match with the bloke sitting across from me. He was bringing his 8 year old son to his first Ireland game which brought on a pang of nostalgia thinking about Da bringing me to my first game at a similar age. There’s been many miles travelled since then!
Once I got up to Grand Canal, it was only a short wander to the Beggars where Terry the Tash was already ensconced along with a few of the usual faces watching Wales’ away game against Georgia. Given the proximity of the Wales game, a few regulars were missing this one with Bren being the only one of the Brummies to make the trip and the Quinn Towers also sitting it out. Of our season ticket crew, Frankie the hands arrived just after me but with Eoghany Mc and Mark not making it, a couple of the lads from the college course had said they’d use their tickets. So for this game, our ranks were swelled by a Scot and an Indian which probably earned the Singing Section some diversity points!
While we were holding out a bit of hope that Georgia might do us a favour after they kept Wales scoreless at half-time, an early second half goal for the Welsh mean that our pre-game chat turned to what team Martin O’Neill would send out. Robbie Brady and James McClean suspensions along with Jon Walters’ injury obviously forced O’Neill’s hand somewhat but it was good to see him be positive with the changes as Jeff Hendrick, Calum O’Dowda and Daryl Murphy were all likely to offer something going forward. The only question now was whether we’d line up in a straight 4-4-2 or if Shane Long would move out wide in a 4-5-1. I’ve been impressed with David Meyler when he’s had to come in and do a job in various positions in the past. He possibly hasn’t got as many caps as he should so it was just reward to see him given the armband for the night.
The importance of the game meant a near full house and a decent atmosphere around the ground pre-game despite the disappointing run of results which had seen us end up in the last chance saloon after being in a dominant positon in the group six short months ago. There always seems to be a different buzz around Friday evening games and the Singing Section launched into its usual repertoire as soon as the game kicked off.
Starting games strongly hasn’t been a problem for Ireland this campaign with goals in the first five minutes away to Serbia, Moldova and Georgia already racked up. And once again the initial chants hadn’t even had a chance to subside before we hit the front! Having started on the front foot as hoped, a long Stephen Ward throw was flicked on by a combination of Shane Duffy and a Moldovan defender before Murphy did really well to wrap his foot around the defender and flick the ball home! One nil up and only two minutes in.
In the previous games where we’ve taken an early lead in the group, it’s generally been the team’s cue to retreat further and further back and invite pressure on. We saw it particularly in Belgrade and Tbilisi and even in Chisinau to an extent. However, any fears that we might do similar here were quickly allayed as we pinned the Moldovans back and mixed up some decent football with some long balls into the box that their defence seemed to have difficulty dealing with. O’Dowda had already seen a mishit shot roll wide before Shane Long really should have made it two on 15 minutes. Hoolahan had played a neat reverse pass to O’Dowda who surged into the area before squaring an inch perfect pass to Long. Unfortunately, in keeping with his recent form in front of goal, Long couldn’t apply the finish and saw his shot flash past the left hand post.
As it happened, we didn’t have to wait too long for the second and when it arrived, it was a beaut. Hoolahan had picked the ball up on the right wing just inside his own half and looking up, spotted Ward tearing down the opposite flank. He then hit a perfect ball which Ward galloped onto before pinging a cross back from the dead ball line. Murphy was waiting and, as he peeled off his defender, cushioned a superb header back across goal and into the far corner! Two nil after 18 minutes and now it was surely all about pushing on and building as much confidence as possible before Monday.
114 was bouncing by now and five minutes later it was nearly three. This time Hendrick was the creator, picking up a loose Moldovan ball in midfield before driving forward and playing Long in. However, once again Long’s luck was out as the keeper saved his initial effort before a defender hooked the rebound from Long clear in front of the empty net.
Moldova had offered nothing going forward at this point but almost got back into it out of the blue on 27 minutes. There seemed little danger as Plătică picked up the ball at the edge of our area but he unleashed a thunderbolt that was destined for the top corner before Randolph managed to deflect it over at full stretch. A warning that even with a two goal cushion, one slip could open the door for the opposition and given how flaky this team has been on occasion in the second half of the campaign, I didn’t want to have to see how they’d respond to a concession.
O’Dowda was popping up all over the pitch and having a really impressive game in my view. He’d created a chance for himself just after the Randolph save and was linking well with Cyrus Christie on the right. Unfortunately Long’s woes in front of goal were continuing and you could nearly see the confidence drain from him as the game went on. I’m a big fan of his for his work rate and attitude and was desperate for him for get a goal before Monday but it just didn’t look like it was going to happen. None of the options he was taking seemed to come off but to be fair to him, at least he was still putting himself in there.
Ireland finished the half strongly with chances for Clark, Hendrick and Duffy all missing the target so everyone in the ground was pretty happy with the first 45 minutes. The hope was that more of the same would follow after the break with Ireland attacking the South end where we were gathered.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. The good tempo that we had delivered in the first half didn’t seem to be there and, while we could have had a penalty on 54 minutes when Long appeared to be elbowed in the face by Racu, we seemed to fall into our old habit of sitting back and inviting pressure on. This resulted in the Moldovans gaining a bit of confidence and while we never looked in major danger, they were still able to force a series of corners around the hour mark.
Shortly after, Long should have made it three but again, his touch let him down when it seemed easier to score. Hoolahan had played in O’Dowda once again and when the Bristol City man’s shot was blocked it dropped perfectly for Long with the goal gaping. However, somehow he managed to put it wide. His reaction was telling as he roared in anger at himself and he really does look a player bereft of any sort of confidence right now. Whether O’Neill decides to persist with him for Monday is going to be a huge call.
By now, I’d have liked to have seen new squad additions, Seanie Maguire and Scott Hogan get some game time, particularly given Long’s issues in front of goal but despite the chants for Maguire from the crowd, the changes, when they came on 78 minutes were pretty standard O’Neill with Harry Arter and Aiden McGeady replacing Murphy and Hoolahan.
The game was petering out by now but McGeady, in fairness, looked lively enough when he came on. The final substitution arrived on 83 minutes and it was Maguire, the man that everyone had been looking for, who came on for his debut with Long finally being put out of his misery.
Seven minutes was never really going to be enough time to make a huge impression but Maguire showed some promising touches without creating anything clear cut. A final fracas between Arter and Gatcun was the last flashpoint of the game as the Moldovan, having already been booked, received a straight red for head-butting the Irish midfielder right on full time. With news by now filtering through that Austria had got a last minute winner against Serbia, top spot in the group had suddenly opened up again as well albeit that it’s dependent on the unlikely event of Georgia beating Serbia in Belgrade. Still, we’d done what was required and at least go into Monday’s game with a shout.
The performance itself, as with a lot of games in this regime was a bit Jekyll and Hyde. We saw a positive team selection and a start with great tempo for the first 45. A good mix of neat interplay from O’Dowda and Hoolahan in particular was displayed and some good long balls when needed to stretch the Moldovans and put their defence under pressure. The second half on the other hand was concerning. Instead of kicking on and putting a team who are winless and bottom of the group to the sword, we looked lethargic and invited pressure on ourselves. I felt that had the third goal gone in the floodgates would have opened but despite the missed chances from Long, I didn’t feel we did enough to force the issue in the second half. All the same, a win is a win and that was what we required.
All eyes now turn to Monday and I’ve just touched down in Bristol for the night before heading down to Cardiff tomorrow. The fact that it’s winner takes all should suit us. Under O’Neill, Ireland have been at our best when we’ve had nothing to lose. Our finish to the European Championships campaign when we had to beat Germany and then had to beat Bosnia were excellent. When we needed to win in France against Italy, we did it. There are no second chances now and there’s no excuse not to go for it from the off. While Wales undoubtedly have players such as Ramsey and Allen who are classier than what we put out, the loss of Bale is a great leveller.
A lot could depend on who makes way with Brady and McClean sure to come back in. Outside of Murphy, O’Dowda was probably our best player on Friday but is likely to miss out. With Hoolahan playing 80 minutes, I suspect that he may make way on Monday as well which may leave us shy on creativity. Brady, for all his ability and his big goals in recent years has been poor when played centrally for us since the Euros and will really need to step up if he’s given that role.
At least we arrive here with it all to play for. It’s not ‘Ova yet!