Brian Kerr: O’Neill can add zip with changes up front
Ireland work rate against Germany was remarkable – task is to repeat that in Poland
Robbie Brady could be used at left back against Poland. Photograph: Inpho
Play-off spot sealed. Automatic qualification still a possibility. After beating the reigning world champions, our greatest achievement in many years, we go to Warsaw with renewed hope.
Thursday was a night like no other since we moved back to the new Lansdowne Road. Until about 10 minutes into the second half the atmosphere was strangely tame and subdued, as if our supporters were mesmerised by the passing patterns of the Germans, while their fans were just expecting the breakthrough goal to arrive at any moment.
But it didn’t – because of the sheer desire and cleverness of this Irish team to hang in until the very last second of a great victory.
Suggestions that Germany were complacent are off the mark – and unfair to our team. The languid style of Mesut Özil and Toni Kroos in particular give a look of nonchalance to their attacks, but it hides their determination, their confidence in their methodology and skills, and their belief that their patient probing will yield a goal.
All gradually changed when the Irish team began to get a foothold in the game, their rearranged shape as the second half progressed – 4-4-1-1 – making them more compact.
Martin O’Neill had stuck with his diamond system, an adventurous one in the circumstances, but we were exposed in the wide defensive areas, as I feared we would be. Only several brilliant interceptions by James McCarthy and Richard Keogh, and one by Stephen Ward on Thomas Muller, combined with German profligacy, prevented us conceding goals.
The work-rate of the Irish players was remarkable. McCarthy performed the Glenn Whelan role as if born to it and Hoolahan was superb at snatching some possession and helping to lift the siege. Walters, too, was massively effective, spotting our deficiency in front of Cyrus Christie and dropping out to help him.
At the back, there were heroes aplenty, captain John O’Shea doing a superb job marshalling the troops, and Ward justifying what seemed a strange selection, in light of his inactivity at Burnley. And Darren Randolph’s sound handling, shot-stopping and through-pass for Long’s goal also justified the manager’s call in choosing him to replace the injured Shay Given.
Up front, while Darryl Murphy didn’t threaten a great deal, he unsettled Mats Hummels enough to make me feel Shane Long would make it even more uncomfortable for him. Long took hi s opportunity in some style. His strike was superb.
His unsure touch and inconsistent finishing are the reasons he’s not always a certain starter, but those two critical goals, against Poland in March and on Thursday, make the best case for his inclusion in Warsaw.
Defensive players can cope with the quick turnaround of games, but after performances of that scale, the team always benefits from two or three changes further up the pitch.
While Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick’s youth and energy were vital against Germany, Whelan’s experience for the away battle should see a rejig to accommodate him – if Ward isn’t fit we might see Brady slot in at left-back, with Whelan taking his place in midfield.
The question now is: after Thursday’s heroics, can we go and win in Poland and avoid the delicacy of the play-off lottery?
To a large degree the pressure is off Ireland, the play-off place assured, but that does not lessen the challenge of winning in Warsaw. I know a 2-2 draw or higher will do . . . but that’s a tough result to aim for.
Poland also drained their tank in rescuing a last-gasp draw in Hampden. Once again, the threat will come from the in-form Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik, who was excellent in Dublin until James McClean nailed him in that defining tackle before Long’s late goal rescued a deserved point.
Poland controlled the first half of that game too and looked a compact, neat team with a very obvious goal threat. In the second half we took over, the composure of their centre backs, Kamil Glik and Lukasz Szukala, disintegrating under pressure from Long and McClean, both subs. Just as on Thursday, O’Neill made some subtle positional and personnel changes that worked.
Seamus Coleman – available for this game, we’re told – and Brady dominated the flanks and delivered quality crosses as the Poles buckled. There was a fire and intensity to our play that suggested some time in the future this team might just click.
So now, as injuries and tiredness are attended to and decisions are made on the starting team, we travel to Poland with that renewed hope.
Their team is better than the one we faced in Dublin, with the return down the right of winger Jakub Blaszczykowski and full-back Lukasz Piszczek. But so too is our team.
Usually in football, when a draw will do both teams, much as we’ll want to avoid the play-offs, a draw it usually is. But there is no greater morale boost than beating the current world champions fair and square.
So, can we do it in Poland?
Yes we can.