Daylight robbery. That is just about the perfect way to describe Ireland’s accomplishment in the Euro 2012 qualifier in Moscow last night.
For the full 90 minutes, Russia battered the Irish team, launching wave after wave of unrelenting pressure, and yet, they failed to come away with all three points. Despite only collecting two points from a possible six, Ireland are in a far better position than they could have imagined. Armenia’s shock thrashing of Slovakia in Zilina has left the Irish in second place with two games remaining, a point clear of both sides, and in pole position to qualify from Group B.
The most important thing to remember from an Irish point of view, is that it is in their own hands. Win their final two games against Andorra and Armenia, and they will have at least a play-off spot. There are various different permutations which could see Ireland top the group and gain automatic qualification, or even end up as low as fourth place. For example, should Slovakia bounce back from the Armenia result and defeat the Russians, Ireland would top the group with two wins. If Russia win, Ireland need only four points to secure a play-off spot.
Quite how Ireland have found themselves in this position is nothing short of a miracle. The Russian players, management and supporters must have left the Luzhniki Stadium last night lost for words. Russia had 26 attempts on goal last night in comparison to two for Ireland, and they somehow failed to find the back of the net. Shay Given, and in particular Richard Dunne were outstanding. Given made two vital saves in the first half, and blocked Konstantin Zyryanov’s point blank header late on, to give Ireland a record seventh successive clean sheet, and most importantly, a point. Dunne’s performance was simply phenomenal. His goalline clearance moments after being beaten by Yuri Zhirkov epitomised his never-say-die attitude. He was unlucky to be booked for a legitimate challenge on Zhirkov, which left him with cuts on his face, and a suspension for the Andorra game. Still, given the way things panned out- better to be banned for Andorra than to miss the Armenia game.
Not that Ireland shouldn’t be delighted with the combination of a point and the result in Zilina, but the team performance was atrocious. To say they were completely outplayed in an understatement- Ireland didn’t play full stop. Giovanni Trapattoni deserves and Oscar for keeping a straight face when he assured the media before the match that his team would be playing to win. Time and again the Russians made inroads down the flanks, particularly down the left hand side where Stephen Ward was supposed to be. Yet, too often he simply wasn’t there. It is hard to assume how much of Ward’s terrible positioning was down to his own lack of awareness, and how much was down to him following Trapattoni’s instructions. However, one couldn’t help but think that if he was playing as Trapattoni wanted him to, surely the Italian would have realised that he was a liability, and either changed the system or the player. If Kevin Kilbane is available for the Andorra game, he should slot straight back in.
Aiden McGeady deserves a huge amount of praise for his energetic performance, and was often the man who found himself in the left-back position. In fact, Ireland’s defensive line was so narrow that at times it was as if they were playing four central defenders, with McGeady and Damien Duff operating as wing-backs. Russia’s right-hand side consisting of Aleksandr Anyukov and Andrei Arshavin gave Ireland all sorts of problems. Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan were overrun in the midfield, and given how deep Ireland’s defensive line was, Russia had a massive amount of possession in opposition territory. This sort of play simply isn’t good enough. It’s becoming a recurring theme but when you look back to how the Irish played that night in Paris, with a team containing no less than seven of the players that played last night, you can see that Ireland don’t need to play football like they did against Russia.
It has to be assumed that the tactics will be different against the weaker Andorra and Armenia teams. Ireland obviously can’t afford to take the Armenians lightly given how well they’ve done in this qualifying campaign, yet a different approach to the one taken in Moscow is necessary. Trapattoni has to trust that his players, and believe that they are the better team. After all, they beat Armenia in Yerevan in the opening qualification match, they lie a full 40 places above the Armenians in the current FIFA world rankings, and while the majority of the Irish team plays in the Premiership, Armenia consists of a group of players that ply their trade in leagues outside of the top six in Europe.
With Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2012 in their own hands now, it is simply a matter of hoping that the team can deliver against inferior oppostion. A little help from the Slovaks would also be welcome.