IRELAND’S 1-0 LOSS to Serbia on Tuesday has left their World Cup qualifying hopes in jeopardy.
Even if the Boys in Green win their final two Group D games against Moldova and Wales, there is no guarantee that they will make it to the play-offs, with the permutations involving the second-place table complicating matters.
If they fail to qualify, the Serbia game will be remembered as the match where it all started to unravel.
Had they won at the Aviva on Tuesday, Ireland would have gone top of the group. Instead, they are now looking at a scenario whereby second place is the best position they can hope for.
In particular, the final 25 minutes of the match will be regarded as deeply frustrating and likely the pivotal point of a failed campaign.
Ireland were presented with a golden opportunity to capitalise as Serbia were reduced to 10 men following Nikola Maksimovic’s sending off for a foul on Daryl Murphy with just over 20 minutes plus stoppage time remaining.
In this tense situation, cool heads were needed. Instead, Ireland’s play in the dying minutes was fraught with tension befitting their perilous situation and lacked the composure needed, as hopes of a World Cup qualifying spot started to fade.
The hosts’ anxiety and desperation for a goal was therefore palpable on several occasions as the game approached its conclusion.
1. Trying to be the hero
Ireland required patient build-up play and subtle, intricate passing in the dying minutes. Serbia’s imposing defenders would naturally be far less comfortable dealing with pace and ingenuity as opposed to long balls and physicality.
Unfortunately from Ireland’s perspective, there were too many players going for the Hollywood moment, ignoring better options in the process.
Players were continually attempting strikes that would have been goal-of-the-season contenders had they gone in, allowing themselves to be swept up in the emotion of the occasion, instead of wearing Serbia down with sustained pressure.
As can be seen below, David Meyler, James McClean and Conor Hourihane were among the culprits.
Notice, for the Hourihane shot in particular, Jon Walters is free on the edge of the box and throws his hands up in frustration as the Aston Villa man opts to shoot instead of playing him in.
This tendency to ignore the incisive pass in favour of the shot or the long ball happened far too often in the second half and demonstrated a lack of footballing intelligence from this Irish team. Instead of trying to open Serbia up in a creative manner, they were doing what even the most average sides in the world can easily achieve — pumping balls up to the strikers and attempting hopeful shots from distance. More should be expected from a national team than this unapologetic brand of caveman football.
The above clips show why Ireland could muster just three out of 17 shots on target during the entire game and also why they have managed just two goals at home over the course if the whole campaign, with only four sides currently possessing worse records — San Marino, Liechtenstein, Latvia and Faroe Islands.
2. Needless fouls
With 25 minutes remaining and 10 men, Serbia were doing all they could to find ways to kill the hosts’ momentum.
The visitors were going down injured all too easily, substituted players were taking their time leaving the field of play and goalkeeper Vladimir Stojković consistently took an age with his goal kicks, until he was eventually booked for time-wasting in the dying minutes.
In this situation, one of the worst things you can do as an Irish player is concede a needless foul, thereby slowing the game down more.
Yet, too often, Irish players allowed their frustration to get the better of them, relieving the pressure on Serbia and allowing them to push up the field thanks to the leeway provided by the convenient award of a free kick.
McClean deserves credit for his passion and energy, but there are times when he needs to rein in his enthusiasm — otherwise, his presence on the pitch is detrimental to the team.
Below are two examples of unnecessary fouls he committed, which ate up considerable time on the clock. Such actions may seem insignificant in isolation, but all these moments of stupidity or ill-discipline tallied together have a substantial impact and can be the difference between winning and losing ultimately.
Again, it comes down to needing cool heads in pressurised situations.
Both McClean and Robbie Brady will now miss the Moldova game through suspension, after they let the frustration of the second half get to them, picking up silly bookings as a result.
3. Lack of composure
As the second half wore on, it became increasingly clear that Ireland were playing in panic mode.
In a way, the performance after half-time was as bad as the Georgia debacle.
In Tbilisi, Ireland could not keep the ball, but at least it was understandable to a degree — Georgia were pinning them back into the visitors’ penalty area and they struggled to hold onto possession owing to the pressure they were under. Yet in the second half against Serbia, Ireland were not under any pressure — the away side sat back and invited them on — yet they still struggled to string passes together and maintain an element of composure to their play.
Going long became the instinctive action rather than the last resort it should have been — Ireland actually achieved this dynamic with some success in the first half, where they mixed direct football with some nice passing.
Watch Cyrus Christie below — a relatively simple ball to James McClean is on, yet he instead hits a hopeful and ultimately inaccurate long pass towards Jon Walters.
And now watch Robbie Brady below. He could easily go short with the throw-in, but instead, despite being well inside his own half, attempts to hurl it ambitiously towards Walters and Ireland end up conceding possession.
The hosts are getting carried away by the excitement of the night on these occasions.
4. Awful delivery
Ireland did not spread the ball to the flanks nearly enough, but on the rare occasions they got it wide, they were usually quite wasteful.
Substitute Callum O’Dowda had one decent cross that led to strong penalty claims for a tug on Daryl Murphy’s jersey, but otherwise, the Bristol City winger failed to trouble the opposition unduly with his balls in frequently failing to pass the first man.
Christie’s pace often got him in good positions down the right, but his end product was similarly poor. The inept effort below is just one example of many.
Ultimately, it’s hard to be too harsh on the players for not being quite good enough on the night.
What they lack in skill, they certainly make up for in endeavour. Yet heart can only get you so far in international football, and on Tuesday against Serbia, the Irish team hit a ceiling.
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