Wednesday night wasn’t the best night to be an Irish football fan. Sure, we achieved our objective of reaching the playoffs which can’t be complained about, but the manner in which we achieved it was painful to watch. It was obvious to the spectators that progression through the playoffs is a fanciful dream if there isn’t a marked improvement in the play.
In the opening half, Ireland didn’t seem to have any obvious desire to progress. It was almost as if the team had decided to hold the match to a draw to secure the one point they needed, and considered the possibility of a win irrelevant. It is difficult to mention any memorable patches of play for the simple reason that the first half lacked any. We seemed content to hoof the ball forward to Doyle and Cox, essentially bypassing the midfield and cutting players such as Andrews and Whelan out of any prominent role in any of the attacking moves. As a result Ireland were left rather lacking up front, and the Armenian defence proceeded to defend their goal with relative ease.
By the time half-time had come around, Ireland had accumulated a total of two shots, just one on target. It would be unfair to dismiss the performances of Cox and Doyle however, who looked at times very dangerous in the box. Cox in particular stood out for Ireland, making a notable effect on the game, which one can’t help but wonder if Robbie Keane would have been able to equal had he been playing. It is now apparent that Ireland have some strong options in attack, with Doyle, Keane, Cox and Long all considerable for selection. But a strong attack needs to be supported by a stellar midfield, which Ireland simply seemed to be missing last night.
Ireland’s defensive performance wasn’t exactly commendable either. Kelly saw fit to play a long ball game, which for the most part didn’t pay off for the Irish, resulting in more Armenian headed clearances than Ireland chances. Seán St. Ledger appeared to have disappeared without anybody noticing midway through the match, as it is proving difficult for me to recall any moment in which he was at the forefront of a tackle or a clearance, or even having his name mentioned in the commentary. It was frustrating to see Armenia exploit the inconsistencies in Ireland’s defence time and time again (probably due to the mysterious disappearance of St. Ledger)and threaten the Irish goal without any significant challenge from our defence. Even Richard Dunne failed to spark any revival, falling well short of the heights of his performance in Russia, playing a fairly quiet role himself for the best part of the evening.
The defence and the midfield acted like estranged lovers for the ninety minutes, as the defence opted to deliver the long ball into the forwards, pretending that they were simply unaware of the presence of the midfield, although they did occasionally take the bold step of passing the ball to Whelan and Andrews. If anybody interacted with the midfield, it was Doyle and Cox. The Armenia goal rather summed up Ireland’s defence: asleep and disorganized. The Armenian shot rolled through the defence with ease, as the Irish players stared dumbstruck at the object they are paid ludicrous wages to kick away. A goal that really should not have happened.
But that’s not to say that the Irish goals were anything spectacular either. It will forever remain a mystery as to why Kevin Doyle saw justification in a backheel for the opening goal. By causing himself eternal humiliation, Aleksanyan may have saved Doyle from the same fate. Not that he would have wanted to. Richard Dunne’s 59th minute goal was more of a happy accident than a goal, but an accident that were so glad of when the defence stood aside for Mkhitaryan only minutes later. The mediocrity of this match can only be further expressed when the issue of the sending off of the keeper is raised. The replay showed quite clearly that the ball made contact beneath the arm, and that Simon Cox had indeed handled the ball just before the Berzovski committed the foul. However, he still did declare his intentions by raising his arms, well aware of his position on the pitch. A yellow for both would have been much fairer perhaps? Ireland won’t be complaining anyway, least of all Simon Cox. It is arguable that the Kevin Doyle sending off was an act of balancing by the Eduardo Iturralde González, but it is acceptable that Doyle’s card was justified anyway.
A read over this piece makes me realize that it has unintentionally turned into a bit of a rant. It is obvious that this is not Ireland at their best, that they have much better in them and are capable of progressing through the playoffs and beyond. But it’s hard to be an Ireland fan when we see performances like last night. This isn’t the writing on the wall however, only a fair warning.
Roll on the playoffs.