Hoolahan’s sparkling hour cannot offset Ireland’s stern test
Portugal 5 Rep of Ireland 1: Pre-World Cup friendly speaks of Portuguese superiority
Portugal’s Joao Moutinho (left) after he colliding with Ireland’s Kevin Doyle in the second half of their international friendly ahead of the 2014 World Cup in East Rutherford, New Jersey, last night. Photogrraph: Ray Stubblebine/Reuters
Date: 10 June, 2014
Venue: MetLife Stadium, New Jersey
Portugal 5 - Republic of Ireland 1: No reprise of the mid-summer glories of 20 years ago as Ireland revisited a favourite old football haunt out in Meadowlands. On a hot June evening, Portugal ran Martin O’Neill’s young side ragged for much of the match and gave the exhibition that their big following had travelled out here to see.
Fielding an under-strength teams against one of the heavyweight European sides on the eve of the World Cup was brave and for a while, it threatened to turn into an exercise in humiliation.
The final score spoke of the Portuguese superiority, but as O’Neill sat down in a glass-roomed auditorium surrounded by fans desperate for a glance of Cristiano Ronaldo, he sought to emphasise the value of what was, as he put it “a stern test”.
“I thought we started nervously and that was something we wanted to try and avoid. Two of their goals came from our possession, which we gave away needlessly. Those are the things that over the course of the European championships you have to try and cut out.
“I thought we came to grips with it: we got the goal back and looked dangerous at times. We were still trying to chase it to get back to 3-2. When I finally sit down and analyse it, there should be things I am happy about and obviously things we need to improve.”
A first goal for James McClean and a sparkling hour of wit and control from Wes Hoolahan were the highlights for the Irish team, who contrived to play their best football early in the second half after conceding three goals during a torrid examination in the opening period.
David Forde made three exceptional stops and even made body saves for two of the Portuguese goals. Paulo Bento’s team were in cabaret mode when they concocted what could have been the goal of the year, a gorgeous necklace of passes circling the Irish penalty area and back heeled into the net by Nani, spoiled by a raised flag for offside. But Portugal were worth the admission price.
As ever, the hosts pulled out the stops, with Dominic Chianese - no stranger to these parts in his television life as Junior Soprano - delivered an operatic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner and Portugal responded to the tenor.
The tone was set in the second minute when Ronaldo took possession around the centre circle and ambled into Irish territory in that cavalier way of his, to the huge approval of the Portuguese show.
The big bowl in the Meadowlands advertises the continuous arrival of megawatt names from sport and entertainment, and as the fans gathered in the muggy heat from 5pm, there was a sense that the Real Madrid star’s personal appeal eclipsed the parade of players from both countries. Distinctive in electro-orange boots and that slightly loping gait of his, Ronaldo held the crowd of 46,063 in a rapturous spell all night.
“Naturally there was a fear of him not being ready to play in the World Cup. He looked as if he was over that. And that is very important to Portugal...one of the top two players in the world playing. Why shouldn’t he do well, because they have some very talented players at their disposal.
Even when they changed things around, they brought on some very good players. So why not? Against Germany will be a big test, but they are capable.”
But it was the Portuguese collective who caught the eye. They played the ball on the grass and from the beginning set out to make a statement, relaxing into an effortless pattern of short, first time passes which stretched and addled the Irish.
The strangeness of these friendly matches - one country bound for the biggest sports tournament in the world, the other for pre-booked holidays - has to be taken into consideration. But for long periods of the first half, the reduced strength of the Irish side was exposed. Ireland couldn’t get on the ball: goals looked inevitable, and they were.
Even the Portuguese were surprised by the sudden two-goal burst from Hugo Almeida, who in a decade of international play had gathered just 15 strikes. He struck with a decent header in the third minute and was placed to tap home again in the 37th after Ronaldo fired a header straight at Forde.
In the 21st minute, another moment of stark misfortune for Richie Keogh. Joáo Moutinho cut down the left flank with alarming leisure and Keogh, chasing back, got a foot to his cross. The ball travelled at a wicked angle and left David Forde stranded.
The score would already have been worse but for two excellent saves by the Millwall goalkeeper, who dropped down sharply to get fingers to a right-footed drive by Raul Meireles in the 15th minute. For the rest of the half, Portugal dictated the pace and a long evening beckoned.
Ireland, though, responded in unorthodox fashion in the second half, with Hoolahan dropping into midfield and running the show, Stephen Kelly cutting inside and McClean making the most of a smartly taken free by Hoolahan to cut inside and clip a left foot shot past Patricio.
Fatigue prompted O’Neill to hook Hoolahan on the hour match and by then the match was full-on end-to-end fun.
Jeff Hendrick had a solid evening at midfield and Anthony Pilkington made the most of his half hour, but the Portuguese, as though riled by McClean’s strike, began raiding the Irish flanks with a vengeance again and a magisterial display of control by Nani led to a perfect cross which Veirinho stabbed home with his second attempt on 77 minutes.
Coentrão, rumbling forward with all the freedom in the world, added another on the 84th move and then came the street-ball magic that had the crowd swooning: even if it didn’t count on the score board, they had seen it with their eyes.
And they saw the anointed one from Madeira as well, who took a loving ovation when he reappeared on the pitch before taking his talents to South America. Ireland headed back to Jersey for a month’s holiday. Class begins for real in September.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Forde; Kelly, Keogh, Pearce, Ward; McClean, Hendrick, Meyler, McGeady, Hoolahan, Walters. Substitutes: Long for Walters (62 mins) Keane for Hoolahan (62 mins) Quinn for Ward (67 mins), Pilkington for McClean (67 mins), Doyle for McGeady (76 mins), Cox for Kelly (76 mins).
PORTUGAL: Patricio; Neto, Moutinho, Costa, Amorim, Carvalho, Moutinho, Ronaldo, Varela, Almeida. Substitutes: Postiga for H Almeida (67 mins), Pepe for Neto (67 mins), Nani for Ronaldo (67 mins), Veirinho for Varela (73 mins), A Almeida for Meireles (65 mins), Veloso for Amorim (81 mins).
REFEREE: Baldemero Toledo (USA).