New twist on an old classic
22:30, 06 Feb 2013
Shane Stapleton at the Aviva Stadium
It was a new twist on an old favourite that confirmed a friendly win for Ireland over Poland on Wednesday night.
Ciaran Clark cracked the loose ends of a set-piece from the net for goal number one 10 minutes before half-time, while Wes Hoolahan got his maiden strike in the green of Ireland after debutant Jeff Kednrick’s delightful ball over the top recycled a foiled set-piece on 76 minutes.
If you’re the sort of person who approves of how Giovanni Trapattoni sets up his team, then this was vintage Ireland. Enough to grind down a mediocre team, a team that’s trying to play football. Had the Poles made more of their good play in the first half, they may have had a goal or two in hand before Clark scored at the end where the stadium dips its shoulder.
There was a pleasant atmosphere at the game from before the kick-off; Poland did to Dublin what Ireland did to Gdansk and Poznan at the Aviva on Wednesday night: take over. So this is what it’s like when the shoe’s on the other foot, this is how English teams feel when Munster come to town. Poland became the home side away from home, with cheers of “Polska” ringing around the stadium throughout the game, amid the odd “Ole” chorus. Not for the 90, however, as the scoreline suggests.
The Euro 2012 co-hosts had a number of opportunities to find the net in the first half and so often it was down to a poor final ball or finishing, or a combination of the two. Striker Robert Lewandowski — his silky touch against his man-marker Clark often finding touch — and attacking midfielder Ludovic Obraniak looked the most skilful players on the pitch and they created much of what threatened David Forde’s goal in the first half.
The problem for Ireland is that Forde, the Galway man, was dangling the sword above his own head due to simple errors. Three times in the first half his poor clearances gifted possession to a Pole and, partly down to his own good reflexes, he managed to repel the visitors.
Yet the netminder wasn’t the only Irishman inviting pressure. The Irish defence were hoofing the ball clear with indifference from the start and it gave the impetus to Poland. They are a side happy to use all 11 players — as shown in how Artur Boruc received and distributed the ball from inside his own box — whereas Ireland deal with possession at the back with disdain. That invited pressure and, inside the opening five minutes, Poland had managed to get behind Ireland full-backs Paul McShane and Greg Cunningham. A goal always looked on for the men in white but Ireland’s lack of guile was made up for with the usual high work rate.
It was akin to watching 11 Stephen Hunts busying themselves on the field for long spells, with the odd flash that these players are capable of better. There was some lovely interplay in the 15th minute between James McClean, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, the latter sparaying the ball from the left flank to the right, which suggested Ireland are more than just watercarriers.
But carry it they did nonetheless; safety first at all times. Poland were not afraid to go two v two at the back whereas Ireland were always looking to outnumber the opposition offence. There was an example of how differently the defences coped in the 29th minute when the threat of Conor Sammon and Shane Long was quickly nullified before Lewandowski was sent clear past three static Irish men just 20 seconds later. Cunningham and Forde did enough to squeeze his options, with the keeper making a decent block.
Just two minutes later, Long and Sammon both had balls played up to them in the one attack, and both allowed their men out in front of them. It was all a little lacklustre in the final third. But as the half went on and Poland’s pretty patterns disappeared, any real pattern of play left the game. The visitors’ style was disrupted and they were playing the game on the home side’s terms from then on. That suited Ireland.
When the Irish goal came, the manner was of little surprise. McClean won a corner, and then whipped it in from the left side. Clark won the initial header which Long twice tried to scramble pasty Boruc, before Clark slashed in the rebound from 12 yards. Ireland 1-0 up after 35 minutes with the type of football that steered us to Euro 2012, the same brand of football that will invite more heavy defeats against those of a higher capacity to finish than Poland.
Ireland have an ability to bring teams down to their level, teams of a mid to lower standard. Poland — being just that — started with the best of intentions, determined not to look for the stratosphere with each clearance. Inside the first five minutes, Boruc played out short balls on four occasions and did so with more than half of his distributions in the first half (8/15), while Forde did so with just two of 13. Not once in the second half did the Irish keeper play it short.
With the entertainment somewhat lacking, a few Polish fans lit flares during the second half. “No fireworks on the pitch — no fireworks,” came the tannoy announcement. And while that turned out to be the case in every sense, there was one more flash of class when Ireland scored their second.
McClean whipped a free-kick in from the left, one that was only half-cleared to debutant Jeff Kendrick, he cleverly lifted the ball over the defence to the onrushing Wes Hoolahan who finished with a lovely left footed poke; never mind the little deflection that helped it find its way. More’s the pity that Hoolahan was ignored by the Ireland manager for so long, and it was notable how his presence as a third — albeit advanced — midfielder gave Ireland a more compact look around the middle. Poland certainly struggled to break Ireland down from 2-0 behind.
So what do we take from the game? A little flash of class from Kendrick, further proof that Hoolahan is good enough for more action, a strong — if one-dimensional — performance from Clark, and the odd flash that this team can play more football than it is actually allowed to.
Sammon worked hard throughout but it’s hard to imagine a new gem has been unearthed in the Derby County striker. If we wanted a hard worker who wasn’t a goal threat, we could always bring back in Leon Best or Caleb Folan. That may sound harsh but rather than Trap persisting with Sammon up front on his own once Long came off, why did he not take the opportunity to try Jonathan Walters or the Tipp man in the lone role? That’s the future if he ever ditches the 4-4-2 system.
Sammon showed very little quality in the game and his feet barked every time he got a sniff of goal. On 61 minutes, a poor clearance by Damien Perquis gave the Derby County striker a clear sight of goal, but he overran it due to a terrible touch. Perhaps Sammon will have better days in green, but the alternatives seem the likelier options in games that matter.
Trap’s team can get away with this sort of route-one football in a game like this because it wore an average side down. It is exposed against good sides and, while it brings a Poland down to our level, we sink beneath our own when we employ it against poor sides like Kazakhstan. Horses are for courses and that balance was struck on Wednesday night. If only Trapattoni would let the Irish play more often, particularly against the teams we should be dictating to.
A decent outing then, thanks to the trusty old set-piece.
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