In a pug-ugly, scrappy game, in which neither nation could seemingly manage to string two passes together, Ireland fell victim to a calamitous performance from the left-side of their defence – and only remained in touch to the end thanks to an extremely fortunate penalty decision in their favour.
Robbie Brady, restored to left-back in a 4-1-4-1 tonight, endured a torrid outing – both on and off the ball – and his left-sided central defensive counterpart, John O’Shea, fared little better. Poland’s opener – a strike from the D from the unmarked Krychowiak – resulted from a corner won by Kamil Grosicki’s strike, following a misplaced pass by the Irish captain and two shocking attempted ball recoveries from Brady and McClean.
Ireland were level with a minute, thanks to the aforementioned penalty kick – converted by Walters. Irish striker, Shane Long, won a large number of free-kicks for his side before his injury-enforced removal in the 56th minute. This was one of them. Instead, referee, Cuneyt Cakir, surprisingly pointed to the spot. Ireland weren’t about to argue.
Ireland continued to struggle down their left-side. More indecisive defending in that area led to Poland putting the ball in the net soon after Ireland’s leveler – albeit, correctly ruled out for offside. More sloppy play from O’Shea allowed Grosicki the chance to sky it over the bar, ten minutes from the break. And Olkowski very nearly put Poland back ahead when Brady stupidly played him onside from left-back Wawryzniak’s simple ball over the top.
Eventually the Polish probing told. Centre-back, Pazdan, played a long ball down the right channel for Linnety to run onto, just before the break. The Polish number ten squared it to Macynski, whose cross was brilliantly headed home by Europe’s hottest striker, Robert Lewandowski.
Lewandowski hurt Ireland in so many ways this evening – not least through his gamesmanship, which conned the Turkish official into awarding a number of dubious free-kicks to his side. Not that his primary minder, John O’Shea, was any angel either. At times, the Irish captain appeared to be looking for a piggy-back from the Polish hitman – and he could very easily have conceded several penalty kicks due to his close attention at set-pieces. Eventually, O’Shea would incur a second yellow, in stoppage-time, for a foul on Lewandowski – to compensate for one of many losses of possession from Robbie Brady. That summed up the night for the left-side of the Irish defence – Brady only completed 61% of his passes, comfortably the lowest of any boy in green tonight.
Ireland took the initiative in the second half, but in the absence of the midfield guile of Wes Hoolahan – introduced only as a 73rd minute sub after declaring himself unfit to start – the only solution the Irish players could see was to go long to Walters. Robbie Keane was introduced to partner him in a 4-4-2 after Long’s enforced removal, with Whelan also sacrificed in favour of Aiden McGeady.
McGeady, fielded at outside-right, very nearly provided the assist that Ireland needed to progress automatically, when he skinned Wawryzniak on the outside in the 81st minute. Unfortunately, Richard Keogh’s resulting free header was trained straight at Lukasz Fabianski. That was the chance – arriving after Ireland had ridden their luck on two Polish counter-attacks that should have produced goals. Randolph’s save from Grosicki and Coleman’s last ditch tackle on Lewandowski kept them in it.
But, alas, it was not to be. O’Shea’s injury-time sending off and Walter’s subsequent suspension-inducing yellow card leaves the Irish light for the opening leg of the playoff – opponent to be determined on Sunday morning. As for Polska, they join the Germans in the group stage of France 2016.