Shane Long’s second-half introduction proved pivotal in Ireland’s hopes of securing a spot at Euro 2016. After almost 45 minutes of sustained attack from Martin O’Neill’s men in the second-half, the Southampton striker pounced on a breaking ball and prodded home, to save a crucial point for Ireland. In truth, it was the proverbial game of two halves, where in the first-half, an untimely mistake from Hull’s Robbie Brady on the right hand side of his own box, allowed Slamwoir Peszko into the penalty area. Marc Wilson couldn’t atone for his team mate’s mistake and the Irish paid the ultimate price as Peszko fired the ball, left-footed into Shay Given’s net. The Polish defensive unit was looking like it would be able to cope with everything the Irish attack could throw at it, with Kamil Glik dominating everything in the air. Glik’s opposite number, John O’Shea turned in a stellar performance as the bedrock of the Irish defence and kept Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski’s influence to a minimum. Granted, the veteran defender had little to do in the second half as Ireland pressed for an equaliser, but the 33-year-old showed every bit of experience to marshal and direct his troops.
Long gone are the days when you could put your house on Ireland’s formation being a rigid 4-4-2, but Martin O’Neill had the media and fans alike second guessing not only who would start, but the formation he would choose. Rumours of a possible 3-5-2 swirled hours before the Group D clash with table toppers Poland. In the end it was a 4-2-3-1, with O’Neill making seven changes from the team that played Scotland. O’Neill’s intent was clear, bringing in attack minded players like Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady, but it would be the formers mistake that would see Poland take the lead. The newly-adopted formation saw less in the way of route one football and a more possession based game early on, but it was a game which resulted in Ireland struggling to break down a resolute Polish defence. As the time on the clock increased, so did the Irish long balls, bared little fruit for the Irish forwards until Long’s strike late on.
Another late goal for Ireland in this Group D Euro 2016 qualifying group shows the never-say-die attitude and commitment O’Neill has instilled in his team, battling till the death has earned them a crucial point, but is it enough to see them qualify for France in 2016? For 45 minutes in the second-half, the Irish team shifted the Polish XI from side-to-side, poking and prodding from the flanks for an opening as looked they set to labour toward a 1-0 defeat, which would have all but ended their qualification hopes for a second European Championship appearance in four years. The late goal will buoy Ireland and put them in a positive mind-frame, but it sets up the Scotland game at home in June as an absolute must win and by that time the feel-good factor of this draw may well have disappeared. While the fans will go home happy with a late leveller, one must keep in mind that this is one point from a game that Ireland could very well have won.
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