Ken Early: Reality check for Ireland as Red Devils run riot
Ireland clearly second best against a Belgium side exuding unity and class
The question before the match was whether the discord in the Belgian camp would translate into a bad performance on the pitch.
Instead, Ireland became the hapless piñata as the Belgians took out whatever frustrations had been building up over the last few days by thrashing Martin O’Neill’s team 3-0 in Bordeaux. It was a joyous, cathartic afternoon for the Red Devils that reminded us how far from the top we really are.
Still, it could have been different. As Marc Wilmots said the say before the game, “Sometimes the coin falls on one side or another...” Nobody knows how things might have turned out if referee Cuneyt Cakir had whistled for a penalty for Toby Alderweireld’s apparent foul against Shane Long immediately before Belgium ran up the other end of the field and scored.
Up till then it had been an incredibly tight, tense and draining game, as Ireland worked desperately to keep an obviously superior Belgian side at bay.
It was clear after just a few minutes how daunting the task before Ireland was going to be, as Belgium moved the ball around effortlessly while Ireland chased and covered desperately.
De Bruyne provided most of the quality in the first half, causing Ireland a lot of problems with the clever selection and precise weighting of his passes.
Ireland were in the zone defensively though, with O’Shea and Clark winning nearly every duel, and McCarthy sprinting energetically into the press.
You wondered how they would sustain this draining workrate under the almost unbearable tension of knowing that one slip, one tiny error could ruin everything - a tension that only grew as the match wore on.
The Belgians were feeling that tension too. This was a match they needed to win, and their impatience could be heard in the boos and whistles coming from their fans whenever Ireland seemed to dally over a throw-in or goal kick.
It was not until the 26th minute that Ireland enjoyed an uninterrupted passage of passing play. Their only chances were coming thanks to Belgian errors, as when Brady’s interception put Hoolahan and Hendrick in for a two on one situation against Alderweireld. Unfortunately Hoolahan wasn’t in the form he showed at the Stade de France, and the moment of hesitation before he tried to put Hendrick in was just enough for Alderweireld to make the tackle.
Ireland’s problem was the inability to work the ball forward when they did win possession by any other means than long balls towards Shane Long, who was putting in a huge effort but taking an unmerciful beating from the Belgian defenders.
On one occasion Vermaelen leapt and slammed his hip into the back of Long’s head, but referee Cakir mystifyingly awarded a free kick to Belgium. It was a portent of things to come.
By half-time the mood in the stadium had grown a little rancorous, as both sides felt they were being hard done by the referee. Long injured Carrasco with a challenge just before half time and the Belgian was the last one left on the field as the sides disappeared into the tunnel.
Just as it had in Paris, the first goal of the game came in the 48th minute, but this time it wasn’t Ireland doing the celebrating.
Brady’s free kick went into the box, Long took what looked like a high kick from Alderweireld and fell to the ground clutching his head. The referee gave no penalty as Long lay there and Belgium played on. They broke quickly down the right onto Ireland’s now-scattered defence, found Lukaku in the centre, and he swept home a great finish from 20 yards.
The next 12 or 13 minutes were the crucial part of the game, as Belgium seemed to go into their shell and Ireland attacked with renewed intensity. For the first time in the game they were having sustained spells of possession in the Belgium third, but given Belgium’s speed and skill on the counter-attack, there was a danger to that as well.
The killer goal arrived on the 61st minute, as Meunier crossed for Witsel, who had been let run unchecked into the box by McCarthy, and Randolph couldn’t stop his firm header from finding the net.
McCarthy was immediately replaced by McClean, whose only notable contribution was to lose the ball for the third goal.
Having taken it off McClean, Meunier played it up the right for Hazard to chase. Ciaran Clark gambled that he would get there first, and lost, badly. Hazard flicked the ball over his challenge, ran unopposed into the Ireland half and found Lukaku, who had a simple task to beat Randolph.
Everything that happened after that moment was just two sides who both understood what the result would be fulfilling the requirement to play out 90 minutes. O’Neill took off Shane Long, presumably to protect him for Wednesday’s game against Italy. The substitutes - James McClean, Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane - underlined the paucity of resources at O’Neill’s disposal compared to Wilmots, who was able to introduce Dries Mertens, Radja Nainggolan and Christian Benteke.
The mournful strains of The Fields of Athenry rose from the Ireland end at 87 minutes . . . adding to the sense of Gdansk deja vu, as Ireland in their white shirts had rings run round them by opponents in red.
But if the result reads a lot like what happened in Gdansk, the day itself was nowhere near as miserable. In Gdansk Ireland were losing almost from the first minute. This time they held out for a half before they cracked. There was nothing to be ashamed of. Belgium were just far too good.