IN the best traditions of dress-rehearsals there were a number of fluffed lines as the Republic of Ireland defeated Oman to end their six-game winless streak as they prepare for Sundayâ€™s opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Georgia.
Kevin Doyle and Alex Pearce provided the goals, but significantly it was only when Martin Oâ€™Neill emptied his bench to introduce his big-hitters that the deal was closed, and victory against a distinctly average side secured.
With the Georgians promising to provide a sterner test, and the patrons of Tbilisi a more intimidating audience, Oâ€™Neill will reflect on the performances of his midfield quartet with a degree of alarm. All four â€“ Darron Gibson, Stephen Quinn, Robbie Brady and Anthony Pilkington â€“ failed their audition. â€œThere is plenty of room for improvement, things for us to work on,â€ said Oâ€™Neill, â€œbut even so, it was nice to win and we will gain confidence from that.â€
Early on, confidence was noticeably absent as Ireland, shaped around a 4â€‘4â€‘1â€‘1 system, started slowly, partially because their deep-lying midfielders, Quinn and Gibson, were struggling to impose themselves but also because Oman, with their conservative formation, proved difficult to break down.
Managed by the Frenchman Paul Le Guen, Oman more than compensated for their technical deficiencies by showing an impressive tactical awareness and comfort in switching from their 5-4-1 default-setting to a more adventurous outlook on the counter-attack. Twice they came close to catching Ireland cold, firstly in the ninth minute when Mohammed Al-Siyabi shot narrowly wide, then later in the first half, when Raed Saleh was afforded too much time and space to move forward from midfield although he shot weakly at Shay Given.
It was left to Wes Hoolahan to change the course of the night. Clever in his movement in between the lines of attack and midfield and equally as sharp with his passing, Hoolahanâ€™s growing influence coincided with Ireland having the period of dominance which resulted in their opening goal. Doyle got it, connecting with Robbie Bradyâ€™s 20th-minute corner to direct his header past Ali al-Habsi and register his 14th international goal.
Immediately Ireland began to gather momentum. David Meyler, relocated to right-back from midfield, came to the fore, sending one lobbed shot onto the crossbar shortly before Pearce directed a header goalwards that was cleared off the line by Hassan Al Ghalani.
â€œI would have liked to have been further ahead by half-time,â€ said Oâ€™Neill. â€œWe had the chances to be two or three up and one of the things that pleased me was the fact that we had played some nice football, when there were periods of six, seven passes. But you need to be effective as well as nice. At times we were both.â€ And at times they were neither, especially in the third quarter of the game, which became tediously flat prior to Oâ€™Neillâ€™s decision to introduce Robbie Keane, Shane Long and Aiden McGeady, all of whom had a major influence.
All three are in line to start on Sunday but Given, back after a two-year absence, has to wait to see if he will be retained. â€œIs Shay guaranteed to start? Absolutely not,â€ said Oâ€™Neill. â€œThe only thing I can say for certain is that Joey Oâ€™Brien and James McClean are both ruled out with injury.â€
Pearce, however, may be ruled in. His commanding performance in defence was helped by a second international goal, scored from another Brady corner, when he showed tidy footwork before firing in a low shot that nestled inthe corner of Al-Habsiâ€™s net. – The Guardian