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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 19 July, 2018

The worst performance of the Martin O'Neill era and more Georgia-Ireland talking points

Plus, where the result leaves the Boys in Green’s qualification hopes.

Republic of Ireland's Shane Long during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, Group D match at the Boris Paichadze Stadium, Tbilisi.
Republic of Ireland's Shane Long during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, Group D match at the Boris Paichadze Stadium, Tbilisi.
Image: Steven Paston

1. The worst performance of the Martin O’Neill era

GEORGIA ARE PROBABLY better than their 112th-placed status in the Fifa rankings suggests, but that will come as little consolation to Ireland.

The Boys in Green tonight produced undoubtedly the worst performance of the Martin O’Neill era.

The only display that comes close to rivaling it is the 3-0 defeat to Belgium at Euro 2016, but at least on that occasion, Ireland had the excuse of being defeated by one of the best sides in Europe.

For long periods this evening, Ireland were outplayed by a team missing four regular starters, a team against whom they had previously held a 100% record, a team who twice failed to beat Moldova recently enough and a team who were originally ranked as the lowest seeds in Group D.

Yet it was the manner of the performance more so the result that paints a depressing picture for Irish football.

Ireland’s continual failure to keep the ball against ordinary enough players highlighted this team’s severe technical shortcomings.

According to RTÉ’s stats, Georgia had 76% possession in the first half. The hosts completed 351 passes compared to 79 produced by Ireland in the opening 45 minutes.

The Boys in Green improved to a degree after half-time and could have even won the game, had Shane Long, James McClean or Aiden McGeady been more clinical when presented with good chances to score the winner.

Overall though, a point was the least the hosts deserved, having dictated play and outclassed their beleaguered opponents for long periods of the game.

The humid conditions were far from ideal, but Ireland still should have had more than enough to beat a side with little to play for and a dire record in qualification so far.

2. Ananidze inspires Georgia

Jano Ananidze has been considered a player of some potential for a long time now.

Now 24, he was linked with both Arsenal and Liverpool during his days as a prodigious teenager in 2009.

A bit like the Georgian equivalent of Aiden McGeady, however, he is considered in his homeland to be supremely talented yet inconsistent and unreliable all too often.

But this evening, Ananidze showed why he has been so highly rated. In the first half particularly, the Spartak Moscow star was the game’s key player and the type of creative force Ireland were sorely lacking.

Having frequently looked dangerous, tormenting Ireland throughout the first half with his clever movement and incisive passing, Ananidze provided the moment of class needed to break down the defensively stubborn visitors.

After finding space in the pocket between Ireland’s midfield and defence and latching onto Valerian Gvilia’s delivery, Ananidze’s perfectly weighted pass put Valeri Qazaishvili through on goal, and the San Jose Earthquakes man made no mistake with a clinical finish.

It was a moment that was richly deserved given how dominant the hosts had become, and fittingly, it was the best player on the pitch who played an integral part in the well-worked equaliser.

3. Serious blow to Ireland’s World Cup qualifying hopes

In the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, Georgia’s shock win over Scotland was seen as a big turning point.

Despite many writing off their hopes of qualification, Ireland secured an unlikely place at the tournament in France thanks in part to this surprise result.

Yet in this campaign, it is the Boys in Green who have found themselves on the receiving end of an inept, error-ridden performance and shocking result against Vladimir Weiss’ men.

Ultimately, this 1-1 draw could be looked back upon as the moment where it all unraveled for Martin O’Neill’s men.

Serbia have now pulled two points clear at the top of the group after a win against Moldova this evening, while Ireland’s big setback in Tbilisi gives renewed hope to Wales and Austria in the battle for qualification.

Whereas before, a draw would probably have been considered acceptable, the match at home to Serbia on Tuesday is suddenly looking like a must-win fixture if they are to keep their bid for automatic qualification on track.

4. Snubbing of Wes Hoolahan strange

Whatever about not starting Wes Hoolahan, the fact that Martin O’Neill refused to bring the Norwich star on at all this evening, using just two subs despite the stifling heat in Tbilisi, left many fans and critics baffled.

Hoolahan has only started two competitive games since the Euros, yet no Irish player has produced more assists in this qualifying campaign than the ex-Shelbourne player.

The two fixtures in which Hoolahan has started — the 1-0 defeat of Austria in Vienna and the 3-1 victory against Moldova in Chișinău — have been arguably Ireland’s best two performances in the qualifying campaign.

Hoolahan’s detractors will argue that he is 35 and has seen better days, but he has surely shown enough for Ireland and Norwich (where he was named player of the season last May) to be still considered worthy of a place in the team.

Some critics may optimistically believe Hoolahan is being saved for the Serbia game on Tuesday, but it seems a fanciful theory given how sporadically the attacking midfielder has been used by O’Neill over the course of this campaign in general.

Ireland, of course, won’t suddenly turn into Barcelona, but he is at least one extra player who is willing to look for the ball and try something aside from booting it up the pitch, which is more than can be said for the majority of Irish players on show tonight.

Moreover, Hoolahan’s absence sends a message suggesting that Ireland are content to rely on dreary, unimaginative long-ball football even against sides as limited and weak as Georgia, who have won just three competitive fixtures since 2012 — two against Gibraltar along with that famous defeat of Scotland.

The Scotland game aside, it’s almost five years to the day since the Eastern European outfit’s last notable competitive win, when they overcame Belarus 1-0 on 7 September 2012 in a match featuring two sides that would ultimately finish last and second-last in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group.

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Paul Fennessy

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