If only Robbie Keane’s singing voice had been the low point of the evening. The lyricism of the Irish language is not exactly enhanced by the Dublin accent. When you add Keane’s atonality – and the dirge which is Amhran na Bhfiann, Ireland’s national anthem – you are in a form of hell. And there Ireland’s followers stayed. In parts, Ireland weren’t that bad. But in the parts either side of half-time, they were. Croatia’s passing was slick in the build-up to their third goal. And Nikica Jelavic’s finish for their second was the classiest act of the night. However, if Spain press the ball against the Croats as poorly as Ireland did, their manager Vincente Del Bosque might have to give his marquisate back.
Ireland conceded only nine goals in twelve qualifying games, three at Italia ’90 and only two at Euro ’88. So three in forty-eight minutes might have been worth a “bet in play, naaah (now)” with that doyen of gambling adverts Ray Winstone. Mario Mandzukic’s third-minute opener was a slow-motion nightmare. You wait expectantly for a defender or goalkeeper to get there…and you wait…. Mandzukic only stretched to head the ball somewhere towards the target in the hope that a colleague might get there too. But there was no need. In Moscow, when Ireland held Russia 0-0 (a result which looked fabulous on Friday after Dick Advocaat’s team had dismantled the Czech Republic) there was always SOMEthing in the way – usually Richard Dunne’s arse. Not tonight.
Ireland recovered their composure admirably and got a foothold in the game thanks to Kevin Doyle’s masterclass in winning free-kicks for absolutely nothing whatsoever – although the free-kick from which Sean St. Ledger scored on 19 minutes was a rare genuine one. Aiden McGeady’s contribution wasn’t even enough to flatter to deceive. But he knocked said free-kick to the far post for St. Ledger to bundle home with his neck – a Scot crossing for an Englishman to score, God bless the Irish Diaspora. Some Croatia defenders looked a bit miffed, having played to the convincing referee’s whistle which was frequently blown from the crowd during the first quarter. But the ball would probably have beaten them anyway.
And they had time to ponder the situation at leisure as Croatia skilfully took control of the midfield. All of a sudden, Luka Modric against Glenn Whelan looked as frightening on the pitch as it does on paper. And Croatia’s second goal was coming almost as soon as Ireland had equalised. Some judicious use of the word “second phase” made the ITV pundits sound authoritative when explaining how Jelavic was not offside despite being in an offside position throughout phases one, two and three of Steven Ward’s personal defensive nightmare. And, unusually, the pundits’ authority was genuine, as circumstances combined to leave Jelavic onside – the first shot not reaching him, the ball coming to him via Ward’s shin, the wind being in a south-westerly direction on the second Sunday of the month… Still, it was a classy finish. Of all Rangers losses this year, Jelavic is still the biggest.
The image of Shay Given’s nose and mouth covered in whatever white substance they use for touchlines on modern football pitches was a perfect summary of Ireland’s position by the 48th minute, Given having nodded home Mandzukic’s header via his left-hand post. It should be Given’s goal, too, as the ball rebounded back into play off the post. There was no hiding place for him, as he held his head in gloves which had his name neatly stitched into them as if he’d had them since schooldays – “Class 2B” probably visible on closer inspection. And the fears that some of us had pre-tournament came rushing back, as Ireland looked tailor-made to be hit on the break whenever the Croatian’s felt like it. Fortunately, manager Giovanni Trapattoni’s substitutions gave Ireland a bit more spark. And Croatia declared – boss Slaven Bilic’s substitution of Jelavic on 72 minutes was an act of mercy. Alongside my note of the substitution, I simply wrote “ta!”
Ireland’s largely unsophisticated late pressure revealed, way too late, that the Croat defence was mush under the high ball. Ireland’s forwards lacked the strength and mobility which earned Mandzukic a severe buffeting from each of his markers – how only Keith Andrews was the only Irishman booked I will never know. But “giving it a lash,” as Jack Charlton’s teams were wont to do, might have had some impact. Substitute Simon Cox beat his previous keepy-uppy record as Croatia struggled to deal with one ball into the box. And Keith Andrews had four (count ‘em) presentable chances in the final ten minutes. Had any gone in, stoppage time might have been interesting. Indeed, had Ireland been awarded the 62nd-minute penalty for Gordon (GORDON!) Schildenfeld’s foul on the atonal Keane, the last quarter might have been very interesting.
Then again, probably not. It would more likely have ended up 4-2, such was Croatia’s control of the second half. Before Andrews’ personal assault on goal, Ivan Ratikic was inches away from finishing the sort of slick passing move they appeared able to summon up at will. Spain’s draw against Italy earlier in the evening might have occasionally seemed even higher class. But Croatia will have a say in this group. Before the end, Ireland’s massed support had to content themselves with out-singing Croatia’s surprisingly sedate following – quietude more down to comfort than tension, I would suggest. And the full-time whistle went to the strains of “the Fields of Athenry” – a dirge’s dirge which never sounded dirge-like.
Some people might be tempted to think that it would be “just like” Ireland to go and draw with Spain and nick a win against Italy. But it wouldn’t be just like this Ireland. After the third goal went in you remembered that even Andorra scored against them in qualifying. And convincing defeat though it was, it only served to show where this Ireland really stand in European nations football.
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