As the dust settles on last night’s bruising encounter at the Aviva Stadium we reflect on the main talking points and look forward to Ireland’s chances of reaching the 2018 World Cup.
Broken Bones and Bad Decisions
From early in the game, Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli appeared like he was intent to let the game flow, proving very lenient on a string of hard challenges from both sides.
There was always going to be a derby feel to this game and so it proved as the players probably realised that the referee was not in a rush to brandish any cards.
But while there was plenty of “needle”, as Wales boss Chris Coleman spoke about in the post-match press conference, it was by no means a dirty match, with the odd moment of malice the only thing causing concern – Glenn Whelan’s and Shane Long’s over-emphasised elbows probably the only real issues in the opening period.
The referee will, however, have to put his hand up and admit that he was wrong not to send Gareth Bale off for his lunging, mistimed and high challenge on John O’Shea.
The fact that Bale was attacking a ball into the box is probably what saved him as the referee might have felt it was just a case of bad-timing rather than any sort of reckless challenge.
But it was careless and it was very high on O’Shea’s leg and even without the need for slow-motion replays, the challenge looked poor in real time.
It also coincided with a period in the game, where Ireland were starting to enjoy some time in the opponents’ final third so perhaps the Welsh players were also starting to get frustrated.
Whether Taylor believed that his challenge was going to over-step the mark in that split-second, only the player himself will be able to answer, but by the time that the referee eventually got the correct decision by brandishing the red card, it was already too late.
Ireland Lacking Attacking Game-Plan
The Ireland management team spoke in the build-up to the game of having only intentions of winning, yet the side that began never looked a team that was trying to force the play.
Ireland looked more intent on stopping Wales from playing, which dragged players out of position and really limited the attacking options once they did get on the ball.
A ball over the top to Shane Long was the only outlet as wide men James McClean and Jon Walters were either dragged inside to help out or were busy chasing the Welsh wing-backs who had the confidence to play the game in the Irish half.
Granted, the Irish players worked hard, kept their discipline and stopped the Welsh from performing to their optimum, but is that what you expect from an Ireland team in front of a full house?
Boss Martin O'Neill spoke after the game about the events of the week taking their toll on his side and admitted that the first half was below par.
O’Neill fixed it to a certain extent in the second half, even before Wales were down to ten men, but this was not the first time that an Ireland team have failed to show up in the first half of a fixture in Lansdowne Road under his management.
Key Players Sorely Missed
Wes Hoolahan’s absence was immediately evident as Ireland gave away possession time after time from the early exchanges with Long unable to hold onto the ball to bring others into play.
More often than not, the ball to Long never even reached its intended target, allowing Wales to send wave after wave back into Ireland territory.
Jeff Hendrick was the only player in Ireland’s five-man midfield with any sort of ability to play that sort of Hoolahan-esque game, but the Burnley man was needed in the midfield battle as Joe Ledley and Joe Allen were in control in the middle of the park.
Hendrick huffed and puffed all night for the cause, but maybe he needed to be told to stay closer to Long and help link play between midfield and attack.
The defensive absentees were not as glaring as John O’Shea and Richard Keogh did a solid job on the potent Welsh attack, however, Robbie Brady's set-piece abilities were badly missed.
Ireland had several chances to put pressure on the Wales goal with free-kicks in ideal positions but each attempt was wasted, while Brady’s gifted left foot could really have done some damage.
Player Welfare Must Be Addressed
There is no doubt that every member of the Ireland squad makes every effort to get to Dublin and sign in for international week. The team spirit is stronger than ever as this group of players compete with all their heart and soul for the manager, each other and that green jersey.
However, injury concerns appear to disrupt almost every Ireland preparation and yet again the James McCarthy saga continued in the build-up, right up to the warm-up before the game as the Everton man, who was named in the starting XI, was unable to start.
Club boss Ronald Koeman has been portrayed as a bit of a nark in recent months for continually complaining about McCarthy’s Ireland involvement, but perhaps it is time for clubs to be a bit more precious with their employees, with the midfielder returning to his club in probably a worse state than he left last week.
Seamus Coleman also sat out the first few days’ training this week and the defender looked far from his best throughout the game last night as he was caught several times with cross-field balls over the top, was out of position on occasion and rarely made his trademark forays into the opposing half.
Bournemouth took Harry Arter off to Dubai last Sunday after the midfielder was unavailable for the club game on the Saturday and perhaps that sort of policy will become more common in future.
Where Now For Ireland?
Had Ireland snatched a late winner, as nearly happened when James McClean’s effort was deflected the wrong side of the post, Martin O’Neill’s side would have remained two points clear at the top of the group.
Not only that, but Wales would have been cut seven points adrift and virtually out of contention.
On honest reflection, though, that would be an unjust outcome as Ireland were second best for the majority of the game, while they have, in fact, not played particularly well throughout the campaign, with the away match in Vienna the possible exception.
So all things considered, as Ireland look at the table at the half-way stage, they must be quite content as they sit joint top with Serbia, unbeaten and with 11 points on the board.
The remainder of the schedule that awaits O’Neill’s side looks easier on paper than what has gone before, with group leaders Serbia coming to Dublin as well as Austria and Moldova with away trips to Georgia and Wales.
Next up is the home encounter with Austria in June and Ireland will take encouragement from the fact that they have already beaten them.
Meanwhile, Serbia are starting to look like the group favourites that O'Neill believes they are and they take on Wales at the start of the summer.
Only four points separate the four competing nations and it looks like this group will go right to the wire, but Ireland can remain confident as they continue their quest to qualify for the World Cup in Russia in 2018.