A very welcome 2-0 victory in Skopje, courtesy of more Robbie Keane heroics, kept the dream of Euro 2012 qualification alive for Ireland. Despite some comical defending in the first half and a reluctance to keep possession Ireland emerged deserved victors from the encounter and will approach next week’s vital game against Italy with renewed confidence.
<a rel=“attachment wp-att-2216” href="http://www.thefreekick.com/blog/?attachment_id=2216]From the outset Ireland looked less than assured at the back. Pandev was flagged offside in the first minute in a little forewarning of what was to come. The defence didn't seem too concerned at the run in behind and opted to ignore such runs for the remainder of the opening half in the hope they would all prove to be as fruitless. Ultimately the Macedonians were held scoreless but it wasn't for the want of gifts presented to them.
The generous defending wasn’t all at one end however. The Grncarov-Noveski pairing at the heart of the Macedonian defence looked uncertain at the best of times and the former in particular had a nightmare game whenever he was asked to do anything. Ireland were never going to be applying waves of pressure on the home side but after a couple of balls were thumped forward aimlessly, the next two punts goalwards were at least directed to the vicinity of <a rel=“attachment wp-att-2217” href="http://www.thefreekick.com/blog/?attachment_id=2217] Irish players. First Hunt hurried Popov out of possession (to no avail eventually) and then the next ball forward saw Keane challenge Grncarov whose clearance dropped to McGeady who had drifted inside. Three quick passes via Kilbane and Andrews saw the ball at Keane’s feet and his shot took a deflection but was surely screaming into the top corner regardless.
The small bit of pressure applied on the Macedonian defence revealed a frailty that was present throughout. It only took a hint of an aerial challenge from Keane to force the defender into a weak header, McGeady had tucked inside, as Hunt did repeatedly in the first half, and Ireland had decent possession in the opposition half. The pass from Andrews was nothing special in the context of the highest levels of football but his early and accurate delivery did allow Keane the space to make room for the shot. In fact the two centre backs were guilty of allowing the Irish pairing to drop off in front of them and find space in that area for most of the game - unfortunately Ireland had little enough decent possession to take advantage of this hesitancy.
After some truly dreadful Irish defending, more of which anon, Ireland almost had a second from a similar route. Popov’s pass inside to Sumulikoski (I think that’s who it was but nobody’s going to check) was brilliantly read by Keane, who intercepted in full flight and slipped Cox in. The West Brom striker finished with ease (against a defence that stopped in fairness) but was wrongly flagged for offside.
Ridiculously the same pattern repeated itself before half time but this time Keane was the beneficiary closer to the Macedonian goal. Another gamble on a slow pass from the Irish captain and he pounced on an amateurish error from Grncarov to race in on goal and pass the ball home to double Ireland’s lead and record his 51st international goal. In years to come the accusers and revisionists may mark Macedonia down as more “inferior opposition” but there was nobody arguing with Keane’s magnificence last night.
Those two goals, and the Cox chance, were of course rare sorties into the Macedonian half. The majority of the game was played in Irish territory and played in front of a makeshift back four that challenged eachother for ineptitude. It’s easy to be critical from the comfort of an armchair but Kilbane aside there was a decent competition going on in that defensive line (not that it was much of a line) for the right to wear the Macedonian bib in training. It says an awful lot about the options available to Trapattoni (and the performances of those called upon) that the most competent defender was a middle aged midfielder from England’s third tier.
The first chance that fell to Macedonia arrived at the feet of the prolific Goran Pandev. Stephen Kelly had some sort of brainstorm ( © Liam Brady) when watching his inside run and deciding he’d best deal with that by jogging towards the ball with his arm aloft. Trickovski played the captain in with a lovely pass but Given advanced menacingly and blocked with a sturdy foot.
The next chance should probably have been a penalty, and possibly a red card, when a straightforward pass inside Kelly caught O’Shea daydreaming. The United defender allowed Pandev a three yard start and was struggling to make up the ground when O’Dea arrived around on the cover like all good defenders do. Rather than continue in that vein O’Dea decided he’d rather be a hero than a helpful defender so he came crashing in to put Pandev and the ball into the slick new stand that opened just in time for this game. He missed everything with his lunge and suddenly Pandev was in on goal again. O’Shea was left with no choice but to fall over and hope that his slip might be fortunate enough to bring the striker down while still carrying the hue of a terrible accident. He guessed correctly and the referee waved play-on to Pandev’s disgust.
More carelessness before half-time gave Macedonia their best chance to close the deficit. A wayward pass from O’Dea with his right foot had Ireland in a small bit of bother but the through ball to Pandev over the top was straight into O’Shea’s territory. Either ignorance or a lack of awareness meant O’Shea didn’t seem to notice the run of Pandev towards the ball and rather than check where his opponents were he had a wild swing at the ball at the edge of the box. He succeeded only in connecting with Pandev’s groin and a penalty was awarded this time. Trickovski blasted it against the bar and Ireland had a reprieve.
John O’Shea’s Irish career has been a strange one. When he was starring for United he looked apathetic in an Irish shirt sometimes. He can’t be criticised for a lack of commitment - 70 caps is a fair haul in any era - but he has often looked lackadaisical in the past. In recent years he seemed to have put that behind him with some displays that bordered on the inspirational but he reverted to nervousness or casualness last night with a very indifferent first half display. He will surely revert to full back when St Ledger and Dunne return but it remains a disappointment that a player with his experience and ability has not matured into a leader, particularly in a team that is short of top level experience.
The second half was far from a vintage display from Ireland but to give credit where it’s due, most of the failings in the opening period were addressed. The defence played deeper, which was a concern at first, but was probably the only way of dealing with the threat of the movement of Pandev and Trickovski given the communication issues between O’Dea, O’Shea and Kelly. As Macedonia grew more desperate they opted for more diagonals into the box and the two centre backs grew in confidence and authority when facing such straightforward challenges.
<a rel=“attachment wp-att-2218” href="http://www.thefreekick.com/blog/?attachment_id=2218] Crucially while Ireland had threatened a couple of times in the first half they had largely scrapped without the ball so McGeady was once again stationed almost alongside Keane on the left flank, way out of alignment with Hunt who was busy defending Popov on the right side. The Spartak winger was the designated out ball for Ireland and he was licensed to run at Sikov and look for throw-ins, corners and free kicks in the Macedonian half. He fulfilled that role well in Slovakia, despite the disappointing draw in the end, and was a real nuisance for the home side last night with tireless running and quick feet to allow Ireland gain a foothold in the Macedonian half.
Mirsad Jonuz reacted to the game passing his team by introducing Djurovski for the ineffective Despotovski before the hour. A heavy challenge from O’Dea had forced Naumoski off early in the first half and while he was almost invisible in the game in Dublin, his replacement last night (Ferhan Hasani) looked out of his depth and disappeared without a trace soon after his introduction. The 4-3-3 formation was beginning to look fruitless for Macedonia with one part missing out of the front three and the lack of class in midfield ensuring they couldn’t impose themselves on Whelan and Andrews in that area.
Whelan in particular reinforced his credentials in the second half with decent use of the ball and a respect for the importance of retaining it. Regrettably his passes backwards invariably ended with the ball being hammered forwards in a panic by whomever he had played it to but he certainly managed to link up with his wingers and his frontmen to reasonable effect. The possession stats say Ireland had 41% of the ball but that was enough to keep Macedonia at bay given their predictability as the game wore on.
There was still time for the occasional scare of course. Kilbane had a couple of decent interventions at the back which were hardly world class but may have proved costly had anyone else been put under the same pressure. Given also saved smartly from the substitute Djurovski and while not as terrorised as in the first half it’s fair to say that Ireland may have been more comfortable but certainly not oozing confidence defensively.
Both managers made changes to freshen things up but thanfully from an Irish perspective little changed when Long replaced Cox and Savic came on for Demiri. Macedonia still struggled to find a way through the Irish midfield, they lacked width despite a late effort to push Popov further forward and force a midfielder wide on Kilbane. Hunt was more than capable of dealing with Popov’s runs and the possession was never quick enough nor intricate enough to pull Ireland out of their conservative shape.
There was still time for a late chance for Keane to grab an unlikely hat-trick after a good run from McGeady but for the most part Ireland were content to play down the clock and they managed that efficiently. The lack of real scares in the second half was evidence of a blunted attacking threat, but all four defenders were at least adequate in that period and managed to deliver a clean sheet against the odds.
Ultimately this performance was further vindication of Trapattoni’s system and his selections. The decision to start Cox ahead of Long was not costly and while Cox may have better games he played his role and criticism in the context of a two goal away victory would be unfair. The first half was a rocky affair but the deeper defending and better use of the ball made the second half more comfortable and whatever tweaks took place at half time evidently worked. The worthless Carling Nations Cup looked a lot more important when a sharp and confident Robbie Keane rattled in two goals and surely the captain has silenced his critics forever this time. Those who don’t like him can find his manner annoying all they like but his effort and his effectiveness cannot be called into question. A very satisfactory night.
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