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AP/Press Association Images Lewandowski celebrates his stunning header.
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Lewandowski sends Ireland to the playoffs after chaotic night in Warsaw
Ireland head to the playoffs after defeat in Poland.

Poland 2

Ireland 1

Niall Kelly reports from Stadion Narodowy, Warsaw

A GIANT BANNER of Robert Lewandowski, 30 foot tall or more, hangs outside Warsaw’s National Stadium — not quite a welcome, but a reminder that once you cross the threshold, you are entering his house.

And so football’s most dangerous man did exactly what Poland promised: he spotted his chance and took it, firing his country into next summer’s European Championships and leaving Ireland to face the lottery of the playoffs.

Results elsewhere in Europe weren’t particularly kind to the Boys in Green. It now seems increasingly likely that they will be unseeded when the draw is made next Sunday morning.

With nothing to lose, Ireland tried to find the equaliser that would have sent them to France in Poland’s place. The best they could muster was a succession of half-chances, but nothing on which you could really hang your hat.

The best of them fell to Richard Keogh with nine minutes left. Aiden McGeady did brilliantly to put the cross into the danger area and Keogh kept his header low and on target. It asked the question of Lukasz Fabianski, but the Polish stopper had the answer.

With 14 goals in his last five games tonight, Lewandowski arrived here on a fanfare. It was John O’Shea who tried to shackle him — and did so superbly for most of the night, until they tangled in stoppage time and the Ireland skipper was shown a second yellow card.

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Lewandowski only needed to slip his guard once and it proved decisive four minutes before the break. As Poland attacked down the left, Karol Linetty — a surprise starter with Ajax youngster Arek Milik ruled out through injury — did superbly to stop the ball going behind for a goal kick. Krzysztof Maczynski clipped it to where his captain was lurking, having stolen a march on Jon Walters.

Martin O'Neill Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Another player might have been tempted to try to control it, but the Bayern Munich striker is in the form of his life and brimming with confidence. The connection on his diving header was perfect; even at full stretch, Randolph was powerless to stop it.

Martin O’Neill emptied his bench in the second half, throwing Robbie Keane, McGeady and Wes Hoolahan into the fray but Ireland couldn’t find a breakthrough.

Until Lewandowski pounced, most of the meaningful action from an otherwise scrappy first half had been concentrated into a madcap five minutes that started and ended with the ball in Darren Randolph’s net.

Poland’s opener was a thing of begrudging beauty, crafted on the training ground and then carefully reproduced for the big occasion. Grzegorz Krychowiak drifted into space in front of the packed Irish penalty box, and when Kamil Grosicki picked him out with a perfectly-flighted corner, he had time to control the ball and fire it past Randolph.

Recognising the danger a split-second too late, the damage had already been done by the time the charging Irish cavalry arrived on the scene. Randolph, unsighted until the last, was rooted to the spot.

The Stadion Narodowy was still heaving in celebration when Ireland were handed their reprieve less than 60 seconds later. Michal Pazdan’s foot was high enough and close enough to Shane Long’s head that referee Cuneyt Cakir deemed it a penalty. Soft — and Ireland got doubly lucky when the TV replays appeared to show that the foul, if indeed it was one, had taken place outside the box.

With 50,000-plus boos ringing in his ears, Walters stared into the sea of red and white behind Fabianski’s goal and coolly powered his penalty low and to the keeper’s left.

Jonathan Walters celebrates scoring their first goal from the penalty spot Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland were only on level terms for two minutes before Randolph was beaten again. Krzysztof Maczynski reacted quickest during a goalmouth scramble but the linesman — correctly — spotted that Lewandowski was offside in the build-up.

With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Ireland started to dictate play and take the game to Poland in the second half. Long’s twisted ankle in the 55th minute was the signal for O’Neill to shake things up. Keane came on in his place and, a couple of moments later, McGeady replaced Glenn Whelan.

Keane tried to make his presence felt immediately but his speculative effort from all of 30 yards was high and wide.

There was just enough nervous tension to suggest that the chances would come for Ireland, and one fell to Seamus Coleman just after the hour mark. Walters’ cross was hooked back into the box by McGeady and after Keane sized up a bicycle kick and thought better of it, Coleman couldn’t bring the ball under control.

As Ireland upped the ante and committed numbers forward in search of their equaliser, Poland had two magnificent chances of their own to kill off the game. A sprawling Randolph did brilliantly to smother Grosicki’s chance in the 64th minute when the winger really should have scored.

As the clock ticked into the 71st minute, Coleman’s intervention was just as important. Polish sub Jakub Blaszczykowski took four Irish players out of the game with a magnificent diagonal ball. Lewandowski steadied himself to pull the trigger but by the time he did, Coleman’s outstretched boot had nicked the ball away from him.

Keogh’s chance was the best of all but he couldn’t convert. Ireland would have taken a playoff this time last week; now we wait.

Poland: Fabianski, Olkowski (Blaszczykowski 63), Wawrzyniak, Glik, Piszczek, Pazdan, Maczynski (Szukala 77), Krychowiak, Linetty, Grosicki (Peszko 85), Lewandowski (c).

Ireland: Randolph, Coleman, Keogh, O’Shea (c), Brady, Whelan (McGeady 58), McCarthy, Hendrick, McClean (Hoolahan 73), Walters, Long (Keane 55).

Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)

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