Slovakia spot Ireland a draw as Rob Elliot carried off
Aviva Stadium friendly draw marred by Newcastle United goalkeeper's serious knee injury
James McClean celebrates after slotting home a penalty in the friendly international against Slovakia at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA
Ireland were generous to a fault with the two first-half goals they conceded here and Martin O’Neill’s managerial colleagues will take some encouragement when they watch the reruns. The Derry man will have seen positives too if the injury to Rob Elliot can be set aside, with the hosts coming from behind early on thanks to two spot kicks. There were glimpses in the opening first 45 of the passing and movement he would dearly love to coax out of his side between now and the summer.
Wes Hoolahan, inevitably, was a part of that with the Dubliner thriving as he floated behind the single striker with James McClean repeatedly switching wings in what was a very open first half. Cyrus Christie was among the other players to make a bit of a case for himself and later, though the urgency had largely gone out of the proceedings, Aiden McGeady managed to catch the eye, at least once or twice, in a way he had not on Friday.
Ireland might have won the game if Robbie Brady’s second-half set pieces had been up to the standard he set against the Swiss but the draw was fair enough. Shane Long, who looked lively, had drawn Ireland level with his 15th international goal before McClean got his fifth but there was barely a shot of note saved by either goalkeeper over the final half an hour.
Eunan O’Kane had his moments too but will be left hoping that O’Neill meant it when he said he would like to see his players take a few more risks at times. The Bournemouth midfielder certainly tried to use the ball effectively but it didn’t always come off for him and when he rather bravely opted to head a looping cross back to Darren Randolph with Robert Vittek looming over him, the goalkeeper was left staring at his team-mate who, in turn, seemed to glance a little anxiously towards the bench.
For Elliot the night ended almost before it had begun, and most likely in heartache, with the Newcastle United goalkeeper stretchered off after twisting his knee, badly it seemed, as Slovakia took an early lead.
This was the 29-year-old’s fourth cap, his second start and his first real chance to impress in the run up to the European Championships. Far from cementing his place in the squad, however, the scale of the injury prompted questions about when he might be able to play for Newcastle again and whether, to be cruel about it, Shay Given had been handed a second injury related Euro lifeline in the space of three days.
Given had said on television before the game that he is fit enough to play on Saturday if required and, if Mark Hughes prefers him to Jakob Haugaard for the Swansea game now that Jack Butland is laid up, then his prospects of making it to France will have been transformed this week in a way that nobody else’s has.
Paul McShane’s, meanwhile, really can not have been helped by this, his first start for Ireland since O’Neill succeeded Giovanni Trapattoni as the team’s manager. Shane Duffy might be viewed as having put it up to the 30-year-old for one of the unassigned places in the finals squad and, if so, there was only one winner. The Reading defender was caught badly flatfooted for the opening goal after committing himself and then had his misery compounded when he turned the ball past Randolph, who, rather than David Forde, came on for Elliot, for Slovakia’s second.
There was more than a touch of bad luck about the second with Peter Pekarik’s angled cross landing him in a tricky situation as he strove to stay ahead of Vittek at the near post. For the first he was culpable after having tried to head a bouncing ball only to be left for dead as Erik Sabo flicked it over him, took off and then cut it back for Miroslav Stoch who finished coolly with a curling shot that, critically, wrong-footed Elliot then flew between the retreating Glenn Whelan and Christie.
It had been three years since any side had scored two against Ireland and not won, but the two penalties conceded in quick succession between the two Slovak goals ensured that the visitors would have to settle for the draw on this occasion. Long won them both, although the first looked a bit of a gift from the referee with goalkeeper Matus Kozacik appearing to stop a ball over which the striker then fell.
He picked himself up, in any case, to convert from the spot then a minute or so later won a second. Martin Skrtel conceded it rather recklessly with an attempted tackle from behind that will have been noted with enthusiasm by the scouts in the stands from England and Wales, both of whom will face the Slovaks in France. McClean got to put this one away although Kozacik will have been disappointed not to keep it out after guessing right then getting a big hand to it.
Late on, Anthony Pilkington got his anticipated run out up front but never really made too much of an impact. The closest the Irish came to nicking it was a couple of Brady frees – one under-hit, one over-hit – and a scramble involving both Brady and Hoolahan after Christie, not for the first time, had got forward well and delivered a cross of some quality.
His performance here will surely have added, in O’Neill’s mind, to his defensive options but Elliot’s injury and its potential implications for the goalkeeping situation may be what the manager thinks of first when he wakes up on Wednesday morning.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Elliot (Newcastle United); Christie (Derby County), McShane (Reading), O’Shea (Sunderland), Ward (Burnley); O’Kane (Bournmouth), Whelan (Stoke City), McCarthy (Everton); McClean (West Brom), Long (Southampton), Hoolahan (Norwich City).
Subs: Randolph (West Ham) for Elliot (15 mins), Brady (Norwich City) for Long and Pearce (Bristol City) for O’Shea (both half-time), Pilkington (Cardiff City) for O’Kane (66 mins), McGeady (Sheffield Wednesday) for Hoolahan (73 mins), Hayes (Aberdeen) for Ward (79 mins).
SLOVAKIA: Kozacik; Pekarik, Skrtel , Salata, Svento; Gregus; Sestak, Sabo, Hamsik, Stoch; Vittek.
Subs: Weiss for Stoch, Mak for Sestak, Nemec for Vittek, Duda for Sabo (all 64 mins), Hrosovsky for Gregus (75 mins), Tesak for Svento (88 mins).
Referee: Ola Hobber Nilsen (Norway).