With nothing of value learned from the previous Thursday’s Mexican stand-off in New Jersey, it was good to have another friendly before the serious business of next week’s home qualifier against Austria and the Sunday evening of a bank holiday weekend was a nice time for it.
With the rest of the squad joining those who had traveled, the expectation, as we strolled across town towards the Beggars, was that we’d see something a lot closer in terms of team selection and formation to what we’ll see against Austria. From the opposition point of view, the absence of Luis Suarez due to the injury that kept him out of the Spanish Cup final was the main talking point. From our perspective, it was obviously a bonus that he was missing but, as a football fan, there was also a hint of regret that we’d miss the chance to see one of the best players in the world in action.
In keeping with the expected attendance, the Beggars wasn’t as busy as you’d get for a competitive game but there was still a good crew there and the consensus was generally positive as news of a much changed team came through an hour before kick-off.
Darren Randolph, Cyrus Christie and Shane Duffy were the only three who started in the States to hold their places, with Kevin Long, Stephen Ward, Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter, Jonny Hayes, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Jon Walters coming into a more familiar looking 4-5-1 formation. After a bit of chat and the usual last minute delays as spare tickets were distributed, we made our way into the singing section. The smaller than normal crowd meant that the searches on entry were quicker than has often been the case recently so we were in our usual spot well ahead of kick-off.
The attendance looked sparse enough with a number of season tickets and tickets bought as part of the duo package with the Austria game clearly not being used. Although, to be fair, the reported crowd of 27,000 was still almost double that of the one-all draw thirty one years ago against the same opposition in a game better known for the first goal of Jack Charlton’s reign so it’s not as if small crowds for end of season friendlies is a new thing! As usual, there was still a decent crowd in the singing section that did their best to get behind the team as the game kicked off.
We started fairly positively, winning a free and then a corner early on but neither set piece came to anything. In the absence of Suarez, PSG’s Edinson Cavani, was providing the star quality for Uruguay but his evening came to an early end when Randolph took a bit of a chance with a ball across his goalmouth that just evaded Cavani as he went full stretch for it.
That was a lucky escape but also served to take Cavani out of the game as he seemed to pull something as he stretched and was soon signalling to his bench that his day was done. So, thirteen minutes in and Uruguay’s first choice front pairing were now both absent. While the change was being prepared, another corner was won following a Brady shot and from the resultant cross Duffy was inches away from making it one-nil but just failed to make contact with his diving header.
Once he finally joined the fray, I’m sure our defence was happier to be dealing with Cristhian Stuani of Middlesbrough rather than Cavani. To be fair, Stuani got involved fairly quickly forcing Randolph into a save and as the game settled down and moved towards the half-hour mark both sides were creating chances. First off, Urreta played in Laxalt for Uruguay who put the ball over the bar when he really should have scored. And within a couple of minutes they were regretting that as Walters scored a goal that both Suarez and Cavani would have been proud of.
The ball had found its way to Brady on the right after a challenge on Whelan. Whelan then played it into Walters who had his back to goal at the edge of the box. Walters’ touch to control was a little heavy, which seemed to encourage Whelan to come back for the ball. This in turn encouraged one of the Uruguayan defenders to wave his leg at the ball which only succeeded in teeing it up for Walters. Big Jon still had a lot to do but produced a glorious finish as he lifted the ball over the keeper into the top corner.
This should really have been the trigger for us to push on but instead it powered Uruguay up a gear as they forced a number of set pieces over the next ten minutes. Having got away with it twice when a free from Urretaviscaya was cleared by Duffy for a corner, from which Caceres then hit the bar, it proved third time lucky for the opposition.
This time it was another free kick around the area that was lofted into a mass of bodies in the box by Sanchez. There seemed to be more than enough defenders there to deal with it but, in a worrying reflection of the late season form that cost him his place at West Ham, Randolph made the wrong choice in coming for it. Not having got close to claiming the ball, he was left in no-man’s-land as Gimenez got a combination of his head and shoulder to the ball to loop it into the empty goal.
In fairness, that was the cue for Ireland to start playing again and a minute before half time Walters really should have put us back ahead after getting on the end of our best move of the half. Arter, who was having an excellent game, played a long diagonal ball which Coates failed to clear.
The second ball made it’s way out to Christie on the right wing who played a deep cross to Brady. He volleyed the ball back to Walters who was waiting two yards out. From our end of the ground everyone was convinced it was a goal and leapt up to celebrate only to unbelievably see the ball come back off the crossbar! It was one of the moments where you’re struggling to believe your eyes and most of the half-time talk revolved around people trying to work out how he could have missed an open goal from there, especially after scoring such a cracker earlier in the game. I’d expect Walters has taken some ribbing about it but that’s football, I guess.
The start of the second half saw a couple of changes as Wes Hoolahan replaced Whelan and, in what may prove to be significant given recent form, Kieren Westwood came on for Randolph in goal. As Uruguay had also made three subs, it was a bit of a scrappy start to the second half and in keeping with that, it was a somewhat scrappy lead goal that put Ireland back in front on 49 minutes. Uruguay were finding it hard to clear their lines, a couple of Irish balls weren’t cleared beyond thirty yards. The ball was eventually played to Christie on the right.
Although he was covered, a nice little body swerve bought him a bit of space and Christie’s left foot was deployed to great effect once again! I’ve seen a couple of people argue that it was an effort at a cross but I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt as what was a fairly weakly hit effort rolled into the far corner. It was actually quite reminiscent of his goal away to Gibraltar in the last campaign only hit with his left rather than the outside of his right. Either way, it’s encouraging to see Christie step up in Seamus Coleman’s absence so I was delighted to see him get his goal and play as well as he did. I’ve been impressed by him when he’s been called on despite concerns over his defensive positioning. He’s obviously not at Coleman’s level but he’s proving himself a more capable deputy than many thought he would.
The game was actually being played at a pretty decent tempo for a friendly but as it reached the hour mark, a further raft of substitutions broke things up a bit more with Aiden McGeady, Alex Pearce and Daryl Murphy on for Hayes, Duffy and Walters followed by Federico Ricca being replaced by Pereira for the visitors. A disallowed effort from Stuani had us worried for a second before we saw the flag and Westwood comfortably dealt with one effort as well as pulling off a great stop from Giminez before the final Irish sub came on for Hendrick and finished the game as a contest.
James McClean has really stepped up since being brought into the side for the Italy game at the Euros. As I’ve written before, he’s been our player of the qualifiers so far and is nailed on to start next Sunday in my opinion. Having captained the team for Thursday’s game in New Jersey on his 50th cap, the fact that he didn’t start this game can be discounted and even if there was any doubt, he surely dispelled it with his cameo here.
Within three minutes of entering the fray, a loose Silva pass deep in Irish territory was cut out by Hoolahan who helped it on to Murphy. Murphy, in turn, played a ball more akin to something Wessi himself would have pulled off to give McClean something to chase. Finding himself in a footrace with Giminez, McClean put the burners on and hurdled a last gasp challenge from the Uruguay defender before advancing on goal and dispatching it past Conde.
It was a very confident finish and was essentially a carbon copy of his finish from the same position in Vienna last November. 3-1 on 77 minutes and that nearly became four as McClean again came through on the same wing only to be tackled by Giminez just as he was about to shoot. He could potentially have got the shot off earlier but that’s being hyper-critical to be honest.
A couple of Uruguay shots that gave Westwood no trouble and the announcement of Harry Arter as man of the match (I’d have given it to Christie) were all to report from the rest of the game and, given that Uruguay are ranked 15th on the world, it was an encouraging performance and win ahead of next weekend’s vital qualifier against Austria. Having learnt nothing from the Mexico game, there’s plenty of food for thought after this game with potentially a couple of places up for grabs.
Randoph’s form in goals was a concern before this game and that concern won’t have been allayed by the Uruguay goal. I’ve always rated Westwood but Randolph has taken his chance well since coming in for Shay Given and has never let us down in a competitive game. He’s actually been very good for us in general. I’d personally play Westwood but I think O’Neill will stick with Randolph, I just hope that’s not a mistake. He’s a loyal manager but there’s an argument that he stuck too long with Given last campaign when he could have done better for the goals at home to Poland and possibly Scotland (although the two deflections on the latter probably give him a pass on that). O’Neill doesn’t seem to trust Westwood going back to their time together at Sunderland, even his praise of him after Sunday was tempered with a comment about having to have his head right. “I knew Westy at club level and you know my view of Westy – he’s a really talented goalkeeper. Just get his head right and he’s great”. This indicates to me where he’s leaning for that position.
Christie and Ward will start at full-back as will Duffy at centre-half. Kevin Long was possibly a surprising choice to start v Uruguay and has had a great end to the season after making his Premier League bow with Burnley and now winning a couple of caps. But I think he’s very unlikely to start and wouldn’t be surprised to see John O’Shea slot back in, although it’s a toss-up between him and Richard Keogh.
It’s in midfield where the big decisions are to be made. Harry Arter’s career for Ireland has been stop-start to say the least with Sunday being only his fourth cap since making his debut two years ago. He’s come in for what I would deem to be unfair criticism about his commitment, mostly down to some ill-informed comments made by Paul Merson who suggested he should be in the England squad even though he’d already played for Ireland against England at that stage.
A combination of personal issues and injuries have hampered his Ireland career since then and the fact that he has missed a couple of squads only to play for his club the following weekend has added more fuel to the criticism. In fairness, some of our greatest players in the past (Ronnie Whelan and Roy Keane to name some of the more high profile ones) have had similar criticism aimed at them so it’s hardly a new thing.
Judging him on how he played in his competitive debut v Austria in November and his performance on Sunday, then he has to play in my opinion. Glenn Whelan has been a great servant but as he was the one that was dropped during the Euros and only got back in through injury, his place has to be under threat even in the absence of James McCarthy. McClean, Brady and Hendrick are nailed on to start so Whelan’s place will really come down to whether O’Neill is prepared to play Wes Hoolahan in the Number 10 with Walters up front.
If he does, then a starting XI of Randolph, Ward, Duffy, Keogh (Or O’Shea), Christie, McClean, Arter, Brady, Hendrick, Hoolahan, Walters looks the best team to pick with the alternative being that Walters moves out right, most likely at the expense of Hoolahan with Hendrick moving further inside and Murphy starting up front.
Whatever team he puts out, there’s no doubt that the squad will have been given a boost by the manner of the victory on Sunday, albeit that it was only a friendly. Given that a win would essentially get rid of Austria by opening a seven point gap, hopefully we’ll see something that shows some attacking intent.
This article originally appeared on A False First XI.