Irish valour can't beat Russian guile


EASTERN PROMISE whistled around the Aviva Stadium last night. Ireland’s ambitions of moving clear in Group B were pulled apart by Russia over 94 pulsating minutes that highlighted Irish limitations and bravery.

It came down to a contest between Russian technique and raw Irish valour and in the end, artistry won out 3-2.

The Ireland team flies out for Slovakia now for Tuesday night’s game and already, mathematics and goals look as if they may play a crucial part in defining the eventual winners of this group.

It was a tantalising night in Dublin. At one stage, Ireland were teetering on the brink of their worst ever competitive defeat at Lansdowne Road. They trailed the Russians by three goals and the visitors were clearly enjoying the splendour of the new Aviva.

During that period, Ireland seemed so down and out that nothing less than the appearance of Don Givens circa 1974 could have saved the day.

But not for the first time, this Ireland team turned logic and momentum on its head by force of personality rather than any great master plan.

Robbie Keane manufactured a penalty from a nothing situation and then Shane Long, in a heroic cameo, banged home a goal.

Suddenly, the new stadium was pulsing and as noisy as it had been in the old days. Near misses, the usual groans, four electrifying minutes of injury-time and a last gasp claim for a penalty by Sean St Ledger.

Anything was possible. But the Russians held on. Ireland were back in the trailing pack.

“Maybe – there is no maybe- if we could have scored on seven minutes, it could have changed the match,” said a subdued Giovanni Trapattoni.

“It was important for morale that we scored the two goals but also for qualification.

“I can look for an excuse but I didn’t think we would concede three goals. But we have to look to the positive because without character we could have conceded more. In the dressingroom (at half time) I said show me your pride. And they did.”

The gung-ho nature of this contest was defined in the opening exchanges. Ireland compressed more chances in 30 zany seconds of play in the seventh minute than they often do for entire matches. They laid siege on the Russian goal and everyone among the crowd of 50,411 was mystified when the ball stayed out.

The movement began and ended with Aiden McGeady, who can safely claim to be the most famous Irish man in Moscow.

The Russians paid close attention to Spartak’s new signing but he opened another energetic performance by demanding a hastily palmed stop from Igor Akinfeev, a save which unleashed a frenzied few seconds of Irish blood thirst.

Robbie Keane was first on to the ball and his left-foot chip looped over Akineev and hit the crossbar. Kevin Doyle lobbed the ball back in and when it fell loose to McGeady, he whipped it across the exposed Russian goal and raised his hands in frustration when no Irish boot materialised. All it needed was the simplest of touches. None came.

It seemed like that kind of night. Twenty minutes later, Ireland were absorbing the shock of two quick goals, produced through Russian slickness, sluggish defending by the Irish and deft finishing by the goal scorers, Alexander Kerzhakov and Alan Dvagoev.

It hardly helped the Irish mood that Russia’s first goal originated in a questionable free, when Richard Dunne was punished for what appeared to be a two-way tussle with Roman Shirokov. Given reacted nimbly to the initial danger but when Ignashevich bicycle-kicked across the face of the Irish goal, Kerzhakov rewarded Dick Advocaat for recalling him by reacting sharply.

The Russian goals were tidy but the paralysis through the green shirted team was unforgivable and uncharacteristic. Suddenly, they were falling into a black hole.

“The Irish have no secrets,” Advocaat declared during the week and it seemed like an accurate summary as the visitors threatened to inflict the worst defeat since Denmark’s 4-1 raid back in the winter of 1985.

The Russians salvaged much of their reputation here in Dublin, breaking sharply from defence and coaxing the Irish back four into horribly isolated places from time to time.

Arshavin might have made it three just before half-time and shortly after the teams returned, Anyukov hammered one into Given’s side netting.

There was something ominous about the confidence of that attack and so it proved. Three minutes later, a harmless Skirokov shot took a freakish deflection off Dunne.

Given was already in mid air, on his way to cover the original shot. Ireland’s veteran men looked at each other in despair. The Russian fans lit flares. A few among the Best Fans in the World walked out of the Aviva. Trapattoni shook his head grimly.

And yet. Dispiriting as the situation was, the Irish never quit. And lording it as the Russians were, they too had their culprits at the back.

“We played some excellent football,” maintained a cheerful Advocaat afterwards.

“Unfortunately it was the penalty that changed the game totally. Then it is 3-1 with 15 minutes to go and then 3-2 and it could have been 3-3. Somebody told me when I come to this room to be quiet and don’t say too much. But I think the two goals, especially the first one was quite a cheap one. There was no reason to foul because we controlled it. At 3-1 we knew they could do that because they are a physical side. Even the best team in the world cannot stop that.”

The Russians are far from the best in the world. Nor are the Irish. A dogfight beckons.

“Russia lost against Slovakia,” mused Trapattoni “Today, Slovakia lost against Armenia. We lost but Slovakia also lost. The qualification is difficult.”

Hold tight.