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Ireland struggled against Georgia last night, but why were people surprised?

The Boys in Green laboured to a win in their World Cup qualifier at the Aviva Stadium.

Republic of Ireland's James McClean (left) reacts after his goal is disallowed last night.
Republic of Ireland's James McClean (left) reacts after his goal is disallowed last night.
Image: Niall Carson

THERE IS NO doubt that Ireland’s victory over Georgia last night was somewhat fortuitous.

The visitors were the better side in the first half and came close to scoring on at least four occasions.

After the match, there was an overwhelming sense of negativity from pundits and fans alike. Even Martin O’Neill and the players admitted afterwards that the display was below par.

Certain critics on social media went as far as to describe the first-half performance as ‘a new low’ and the ‘worst’ display Ireland had produced in recent memory.

And there is no escaping the fact that the first 45 minutes in particular were dour from an Irish perspective.

Yet there seemed to be a sense of surprise and outrage that the Irish team struggled at times against the Georgians, when in fact, how the game panned out was actually more akin to Groundhog Day.

Last night’s game was actually remarkably similar to previous meetings between the teams and the display was also more or less typical of the O’Neill era.

A surprise would have been Ireland winning 4-0 or 5-0. In the six competitive games that the Boys in Green have faced Georgia in the last 13 years, the 2-0 win at home under Brian Kerr aside, all the other Irish victories have been by a single-goal margin.

Furthermore, if you discount matches against Gibraltar, Ireland have only won one competitive fixture by more than a single-goal margin since the O’Neill era began — the 2-0 Euro 2016 playoff defeat of Bosnia.

So there is no doubt that Ireland are a conservative team, and O’Neill is at least partially responsible for this safety-first approach.

Moreover, they were playing against Georgia — a team far better than their 137th-place Fifa ranking suggests.

Vladimir Weiss’ side have beaten Scotland and Spain in recent times. Moreover, in the last qualification campaign, of Georgia’s seven losses, only three were by more than a single goal — 2-0 at home to reigning world champions Germany and 4-0 twice against Poland. And even those Polish games were closer than the scoreline suggests, as both were 0-0 at half-time, while it was 1-0 in the away fixture until the 89th minute.

Therefore, teams rarely if ever unequivocally outclass Georgia these days, so it would have been naive to expect Ireland to do so. The Boys in Green are a team who, again with the exception of Gibraltar matches, have not scored more than two goals in a competitive fixture since Martin O’Neill took charge.

The truth is that Ireland are primarily set up as a team that’s difficult to beat — while there have been one or two notable exceptions, the side’s defensive record has been largely excellent since O’Neill took over — they conceded just eight times in 12 matches during Euro 2016 qualification.

So that’s why Ireland often deliver what are perceived as impressive performances against bigger teams such as Bosnia, Italy and Germany — they are good at essentially frustrating the ‘better’ opposition into submission before pouncing once they suffer momentary lapses in concentration.

Conversely, it’s why they frequently frustrate against the so-called weaker nations. They are set up to destruct not create, and when the onus is on them to open up their opponents, as it was last night, the situation seems somewhat alien to them — particularly when their most creative player, Wes Hoolahan, is absent from the team.

Perhaps Ireland are capable of playing the type of adventurous, technical football that Dundalk, Bournemouth and several other non-footballing superpowers tend to exhibit these days. But we’re unlikely to find out if they are capable of adopting this enterprising style with O’Neill at the helm — by now, it’s obvious that the 64-year-old coach has a set way of playing, and it’s seldom pretty to watch.

With the exception of two like-for-like replacements coming in — Jon Walters for Daryl Murphy and Ciaran Clark for Richard Keogh — last night’s starting XI was the same one that beat Italy at the Euros less than four months ago.

The difference between those two games is less to do with Ireland and more about how the opposition approached the encounter. The Irish team’s passing was still relatively poor against the Italians (225 completed passes out of an attempted 277 is nothing special even by Irish standards), but their energy and commitment off the ball looked highly effective against a side that played a much more attacking game.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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