One year and two days ago, the Republic of Ireland lost away to Scotland by a single goal. The nation’s chances of even securing a playoff looked remote at best. Tonight, it won that playoff, comfortably besting a much-fancied Bosnia-Herzigovina side to qualify for Euro 2016.
That night in Glasgow, manager Martin O’Neill matched his counterpart Gordon Strachan’s 4-4-1-1 formation. The hosts’s midfield three dominated the game, with number ten, Steven Naismith, completing more than twice as many passes as his hapless opposite number: Jonathan Walters.
Few would have predicted that Ireland would secure their place in the finals almost one year to the day, with Walters widely regarded as the most important player in achieving that unlikely goal. Such outlandish predictions looked even more ill-judged when the Irish got out of jail with a last minute Shane Long equaliser in their next competitive game at home to Poland in March of this year.
Ireland’s – and Walters’ – turnaround began in June, with the 1-1 home draw against the Scots. Martin O’Neill surprised many by selecting a midfield diamond with Wes Hoolahan at the tip and Walters partnering Daryl Murphy up top. Ireland turned in their best performance of the campaign in the first half and were unlucky not to take all three points when Walters’ opener was cancelled out by a John O’Shea own goal. The Stoke utility man looked far more comfortable leading the Irish line than playing in the hole.
It’s probable that O’Neill plumped for this system in order to safely accommodate the guile of Hoolahan, without compensating the defensive solidity of the side. The Norwich midfielder would always have two energetic runners either side of him – and Glenn Whelan behind – to do his dirty work for him. O’Neill only deviated from the diamond away to Poland – when Hoolahan wasn’t available – and away to Bosnia when the unavailability of Walters and Long rendered a two-striker system inappropriate.
O’Neill even persisted with this attack-minded system for the 1-0 home victory over the world champion Germans. And he bravely persisted with it tonight too, despite Ireland’s slender away goal-based advantage.
Despite outnumbering the Bosnian 4-1-4-1 in the centre of midfield, Ireland found themselves playing without the ball for the majority of this game as usual, as high Bosnian pressure forced Ireland into long, aimless, clearances. Luckily for Ireland, the Bosnian boss, Bazdarevic, who took a lot of stick for picking a 4-4-2 system in the first leg, looked to have got it wrong again tonight. Miralem Pjanic spent most of the first clash marooned between his centre-backs initiating attacks. Although widely expected to play as a number ten tonight when the team-sheets were published, he played right-of-centre of a three for the most part.
Although Pjanic prompted a couple of bright moments for his side in the first half, as Bosnia again looked to exploit the perceived weakness down Ireland’s left-hand side, Bosnia were generally bereft of incision as a team, with Dzeko consistently isolated up top and Edin Visca getting far less change out of Robbie Brady than he got out of Stephen Ward on Friday night.
Brady’s selection represented another brave choice from O’Neill. Although the Norwich man scored the vital away goal three nights ago in Zenica, his last stint at left-back – away to Poland in the final group game – was an unmitigated disaster. Here, aside from a hairy moment early in the second half, when he allowed Visca in behind to cross, he performed his defensive responsibilities admirably. He even combined well with Jeff Hendrick on the overlap on several occasions in the first-half, as Ireland took advantage of Visca’s high positioning and Pjanic’s unwillingness to track the Derby midfielder.
By his own admission in his post-match interview with RTÉ, Brady’s set piece delivery was again poor, as it was on Friday night. Apart, of course, from the outswinging free-kick that found Walters at the back post to put the tie to bed and complete the striker’s brace. There was more than a touch of misfortune about his first – a penalty, after centre-back Zukanovic was harshly penalised for handball. These things have a way of evening themselves out, as the saying goes.
That was the only evidence of harsh officiating on display this evening. The failure to dismiss Bosnian captain, and chief headbanger, Emir Spahic – the 35 year-old who was sacked by Leverkusen this spring for headbutting a security guard – was absolutely incredible in the extreme. This represented further fuel for the theory that officials are under orders to keep players on the pitch for big international games. James McCarthy’s and Edin Dzeko’s avoidance of the yellow card in the first leg was almost as baffling. And hark back to the World Cup last summer, when yellow cards were also at a premium. Fernandinho in the Brazil/Colombia game particularly springs to mind.
Spahic’s conduct, coupled with the bookings several of his teammates incurred for dissent, revealed the category in which Ireland held the largest advantage over its vanquished Balkan opposition – temperament.
Despite not playing particularly well on the ball in either tie, the Bosnians scarcely laid a glove on their supposedly vastly inferior Irish. Their only shot on target tonight was a speculative long range effort from the awful Haris Medunjanin. And the only real save that Randolph had to make over the two legs was the near-post block from Lulic in Friday’s fog-laden second-half.
In truth, they bottled it. And their manager’s team selections didn’t help matters either. Both the 4-4-2 on Friday and the 4-1-4-1 tonight seemed inapt for the respective circumstances at hand. Bazdarevic was too cocky then. And too restrained this evening. His side eventually resorted to bringing on the 6 foot, 6 inch Djuric and launching long balls into the Irish penalty-area. Apart from Ibisevic almost destroying the crossbar in injury-time, this agricultural approach was no problem for the Irish pairing of Keogh and Clark, who again performed admirably – with the latter taking the spotlight this time around, after Keogh’s man of the match showing on Friday night.
By this point, O’Neill had long removed Hoolahan and moved to a 4-1-4-1 with James McClean on the left, who treated us to a reasonably good Spahic impression in his 35 minutes on the field. This has been a common gambit from the Irish boss when leading, since switching to the diamond system in June. The second-half was scarcely ten minutes old when he readied his subs tonight. I commented aloud that it might be a bit early to be shutting up shop. Seconds later, Bosnian right-full Vranjes used his freedom to set Visca free down the line. Senad Lulic fluffed his lines in the box from the resulting cross. I breathed a sigh of relief. McClean immediately arrived onto the field of play to mark Vranjes. Maybe this O’Neill fella knows what he’s doing after all.