Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup next year hang by a thread after a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Serbia at the Aviva Stadium.
It was a much-improved performance from Saturday’s shambolic performance in Tbilisi as the Boys in Green, buoyed by the presence of Wes Hoolahan and David Meyler in midfield, looked a lot more comfortable in possession, but were undone by a rocket from former Manchester City man Aleksandar Kolarov early int the second half.
Victory for Wales in Moldova has left Martin O’Neill’s side with a mountain to climb to even finish second in Group D (and even that may not be enough for a playoff spot), but how did the players fare on a night when the performance arguably didn’t get the result it deserved?
Darren Randolph. Didn’t really have an awful lot to do, truth be told. Couldn’t do an awful lot for Kolarov’s goal (though he’ll be disappointed at being beaten at the near post) and did well when called into action when saving from Mitrovic in the first half. That said, his distribution was a bit wayward at times.
Cyrus Christie. As always, a threat going forward and seemed to enjoy the freedom and space allowed by Ireland’s narrow midfield. However, questions have to be asked about his positional sense defensively and was nowhere to be seen when Kolarov burst into the box on what was his area of defence.
Shane Duffy. A fine performance in defence, made a great block within the first few minutes and looked pretty confident throughout. Had a goal chalked off (correctly) for offside and at that point Brady should have been looking for him with set pieces at all times. Growing into his role as an Ireland centre-back at just the right time.
Ciaran Clark. Overshadowed slightly by how calm and collected Duffy appeared to be next to him, but Clark’s performance should be disregarded based on appearances. Rarely allowed the Serbian attack to have much space and the signs are relatively positive for this partnership going forward.
Stephen Ward. Made himself available more often than on Saturday but his limitations going forward meant that there wasn’t nearly enough of a threat down that flank. The diamond midfield gave him a licence to bomb forward a bit more but he just wasn’t up to it.
David Meyler. Came in for Glenn Whelan in the starting eleven and showed far more dynamism and, to use Jim Beglin’s word, industry in the midfield as he looked to get on the ball during his time on the pitch. The difference between this performance and the static Whelan was there for all to see and the Hull man more than justified his start.
Wes Hoolahan. Hoolahan’s class was evident from the first minute, always looking for the ball and bridging the gap between midfield and attack (as best he could). His presence clearly made the players around him more confident, and it’s just a shame that a previous injury concern led to his withdrawal after an hour. Typically assured performance.
Robbie Brady. Energetic and constantly got into decent positions, but Brady’s distribution (especially from set-pieces) was very disappointing. A dismissed notion previously, but it might be time to consider moving the Burnley man back to the left side of defence and let him play it out from the back.
James McClean. Was absolutely everywhere again in a typically energetic performance. Allowed the adrenaline to get to him sometimes, and was lucky to escape a yellow card on more than one occasion, but did his job of lifting the crowd when they needed it. Will be a loss against Moldova, but that is probably the best match to be missing for.
Jonathan Walters. Pretty quiet by his own standards. Tracked back well enough but didn’t create the link between Shane Long and the rest of the team that it looked like he was supposed to. Left slightly isolated in the attack and wasn’t able to play his usual game as a result.
Shane Long. Decent hold-up play when operating through the middle but drifted wide far too often, which in turn left the actual wide players with little to aim for in the box. Had one long-range effort in the first half but never really looked a goal threat. With Scott Hogan and Sean Maguire coming through, Long’s place could be in jeopardy.
Daryl Murphy (Hoolahan 62). Offered another outlet when he came on and it was he who was fouled for Maksimovic’s red card. Could well have had a penalty and had a snapshot late on that was straight at the goalkeeper. All in all, probably offered more than Long.
Callum O’Dowda (Ward 72). Was offered plenty of space out on the left by a stretched Serbian defence in the closing stages but his crossing wasn’t quite there. Nonetheless, with James McClean and Robbie Brady suspended for the next match he could well be pushing for a start.
Conor Hourihane (Meyler 79). Came on for the last ten minutes and had the confidence to crack off a couple of efforts from long-range, but other than that he got a bit lost in the mayhem that was the closing stages.