Republic of Ireland 1-1 Scotland
Ireland’s chances of qualifying for next summer’s European Championship in France suffered a major blow as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Group D rivals Scotland in this evening’s Euro 2016 qualifier at the Aviva Stadium.
Martin O’Neill side took the lead after a frantic first 38 minutes as Jonathan Walters was on hand to smash the ball home from close range after Daryl Murphy’s header was saved by David Marshall.
But Scotland hit back within two minutes of the restart as Shaun Maloney’s left-footed shot was deflected off John O’Shea and past Shay Given into the back of the net.
Ireland threw everything at the visitors in the final minutes but could not find the breakthrough, leaving their chances of qualifying for next summer’s championships hanging by a thread.
Ireland are fourth in their group on nine points, five points behind leaders Poland, with Scotland second on 11 points. Germany occupy third spot on 10 points.
The home side appeared anxious to get that early edge out of their game and pumped the ball long from the first minute with Walters, joining Murphy in the attack, looking to put pressure on the Scottish back four.
And there was a modicum of success from the tactic as Scotland were not too comfortable dealing with the aerial activity and it allowed Wes Hoolahan to pick up the scraps and look to work the ball inside the box, with James McCarthy also showing early in the attack.
That pressure remained for the opening five minutes, but Ireland could not really test Marshall in the Scotland goal.
When Scotland did manage to get beyond the half-way line, James Morrison looked assured and ran with intent before laying the ball off for Steven Naismith, who had cut in from the left.
The Everton man found space on the edge of the Ireland box but had not steadied himself and ended up dragging his shot well wide of Given’s left post.
Scotland won a corner in the 11th minute and alarm bells should have been going off in the Ireland defence after the goal that decided the tie at Celtic Park came from a well-worked routine, but apparently not.
Scotland cut the ball back to the arriving Matt Ritchie at the edge of the box and the Bournemouth man clipped a neat cross to the back post, but luckily for Ireland, the ball was scrambled clear.
But Ireland kept with the game plan and were enjoying decent spells of possession, working their way into the Scotland half, which led to a couple of half-chances for Murphy and Glenn Whelan, while the ever-advanced Robbie Brady was causing lots of problems behind the Scotland back four with some expert deliveries.
The Irish fans were playing their part as the Aviva rocked with wave upon wave of vocal encouragement, while loud shouts for a back pass and a penalty were intended to put doubts in the officials’ minds, although they had got everything right thus far.
The Italian referee, however, could have and possibly should have sent James McCarthy off in the 30th minute as the Everton midfielder led with his elbow in an aerial challenge with Scotland’s Russell Martin.
McCarthy got away with just a yellow card, while the Scottish defender had to receive several minutes of attention as Gordon Strachan’s men had to cope with ten men for three or four minutes.
In the 38th minute, Murphy was starting to show why he finished the season as the Championship’s top scorer, as he angled a remarkable header to the top corner, which the keeper tipped over for a corner.
The Ipswich man the lost his marker from the resulting corner and powered a fierce header straight at Marshall and the Scotland keeper could only parry the ball into the path of Walters. The Stoke man made no mistake with the finish as the Lansdowne roar returned, although this was another mistake to chalk up to the officials as Walters was half a yard offside when Murphy connected with his header.
But these are the decisions that make or break managers and qualifying campaigns and the Ireland boss probably felt he was deserving of the luck in what has been a tough Group D campaign.
Scotland were not really set up for such a scenario, yet managed to work a bit of pressure into the Ireland half, but the Irish defence, which has looked solid throughout, easily saw the game through to the interval.
That was the score part of Roy Keane’s request taken care of, so what of the clean sheet? The second 45 minutes would answer that particular conundrum.
Strachan made an expected change at half-time, with Ikechi Anya coming on for the second half, and Ireland’s attempt to hold on for the second 45 minutes lasted for almost exactly one minute as Maloney’s deflected effort nestled in the bottom left corner of the net.
Scotland went straight at the Irish defence from the whistle and a neat one-two on the edge of the box between Naismith and Anya was not dealt with and the arriving Maloney had time to hit his left-footed effort.
In fact, the ball looked like it was going harmlessly wide before striking O’Shea and, no doubt, Scotland boss Strachan will feel that the footballing Gods were just doing what they do best.
The goal knocked the wind out of the Irish side and Scotland dominated for the following exchanges, but it took a moment of sheer class from Hoolahan to get the Irish going again as he rolled an inch perfect pass into the path of Murphy, who was through on goal.
Murphy’s shot was not hit with too much venom as he almost attempted to place it past Marshall, but the keeper got enough on it to send it wide of the goal and the arriving Walters was well marshalled and could not turn the ball home.
But Scotland sensed that they could maybe snatch all three points and the lively Anya was again causing problems down the left, and his deflected cross almost deceived Given, who had to improvise and effectively spiked the ball, volleyball style, into the ground and luckily the ball bounced over two Scotland attackers.
James McClean was thrown into the fray in the 68th minute in place of Whelan as the Ireland boss sensed that he needed to act quickly and decisively, taking off the holding midfielder.
But the real signal of intent arrived just four minutes later as record goalscorer Robbie Keane was sent on in place of Hoolahan, who had put in a fine shift in the middle of the park.
The crowd responded with chants of Keane-o, Keane-o, showing their support for the striker who has had a traumatic few days, as his two cousins tragically died earlier in the week.
The LA Galaxy man was straight into the action and tested Marshall from distance just two minutes after coming on with a stinging, left-footed effort but the keeper was behind it all the way and easily dealt with it.
Shane Long was next to arrive with ten minutes to make a difference, but now Scotland were camped on the edge of their own box and were getting bodies and heads in the way of every cross that flew into or across the box.
The closest Ireland came to really testing the keeper in those final minutes was a near-post header from McClean, but a Scottish body was, once again, in the way and the danger was averted.
With just three minutes of injury time to negotiate, Scotland held firm and Ireland were now looking desperate and without invention, and were helpless as time ran out on this lively and enjoyable affair and possibly their hopes of qualification.
Republic of Ireland: Shay Given; Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Marc Wilson, Robbie Brady; Jonathan Walters, Jeff Hendrick, Glenn Whelan (James McClean 68), James McCarthy, Wes Hoolahan (Robbie Keane 73); Daryl Murphy (Shane Long 80).
Scotland: David Marshall; Alan Hutton, Russell Martin, Charlie Mulgrew, Craig Forsyth; Shaun Maloney, James Morrison, Scott Brown (James McArthur 85), Matt Ritchie (Ikechi Anya HT), Steven Naismith (Christophe Berra 90+2); Steven Fletcher
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy).