Meyler a ray of hope amid disappointment
Aleksandar Kolarov has possibly hammered the final nail into the coffin of Ireland’s World Cup ambitions, but the Boys in Green died with their boots on at the Aviva Stadium, as Martin O’Neill’s side were beaten 1-0 by group leaders Serbia.
A 55th-minute thunderbolt proved the difference as Serbia went home with all three points and one foot in next summer’s showpiece.
For Ireland, it has been a bad week on the results front with just one point gained from six on offer and before Martin O’Neill’s side could worry about the result against Serbia, they were first tasked with saving face from a very bad night at the office in Georgia.
There was no place in the starting line-up in Tbilisi for David Meyler, and on Tuesday night the Hull City midfielder was tasked with doing the job of two men as midfielders Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan were both dropped.
Meyler had been here before, called to arms at short notice. Not first choice but a reliable lieutenant left on the bench until needed. Right back in Gelsenkirken? No problem for the 6ft 3in Corkonian. An early replacement for the injured Glenn Whelan in Vienna? A seamless transition into the side, playing a blinder, and more than just a little bit involved in the winning goal.
Here Meyler might have shirked at the prospect of digging his manager and fellow team-mates out of the big hole that they had dug themselves in Georgia on Saturday – a problem not of his making. But not this man. Standing tall – very tall – in the middle of the park, Meyler was influencing proceedings as early as the opening minute of this World Cup qualifier.
Midway along the spine of the team with Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark propping him up, with the fine footballing form of Wes Hoolahan up ahead, pulling the strings behind Jon Walters and Shane Long. A conductor of sorts, Meyler’s barking baton directed the play from his central spot – the more-than-willing orchestra played along, a high tempo with just a touch of clatter from the percussion section.
First came the pressure. Ireland pushed on, two up front, in-your-face football. Next came the passing. Who said that they don’t have the players? The long ball was still in effect, but merely a tool to quickly clear the lines and allow the defence to push on.
The pressure almost paid dividends and when Ireland got on the ball inside the Serbia half, they started passing the ball about with ease and nonchalance just like the way those fancy Serbs were expected to play. Ten consecutive passes took the ball from the right side of the pitch, through midfield and out to the left flank.
And then came the chances.
The arriving Stephen Ward sent a dangerous ball in on top of the keeper, bracing himself for the imminent arrival of the advanced Shane Duffy. The keeper, to his credit, won this particular battle. But Duffy maintained his forward momentum and just a minute later smashed a fine header into the back of the net.
It took a while for the stadium music manager to notice the linesman waving away Ireland’s chance to take the lead, but Duffy had been just a little over-exuberant and had got himself ahead of the ball before Robbie Brady delivered the pinpoint delivery.
O’Neill, meanwhile, had taken a lot of criticism, from this parish and beyond, for the lacklustre performance and non-existent tactics following Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Georgia. But the manager took it all in his stride and made a major reshuffle, to set his team out with the right attacking intentions for the perceived tougher task against Serbia.
The diamond formation in midfield allowed the manager to effectively narrow the pitch with James McClean and Robbie Brady playing on either side of Meyler and Hoolahan. From the outset, Ireland looked a completely different outfit from the side that laboured in Tbilisi and the rewards were instant as the majority of the play happened inside the Serbia half.
The confidence continued to build as McClean, then Long, tried their luck from distance, the latter forcing a fine save from the keeper who managed to get fingertips on the dipping effort.
Hoolahan himself almost got in on goal, as a new-look Brady slipped him inside, before just losing control as he wormed his way goalwards.
The passion bubbled near boiling point from the opening exchanges, aided by a referee who was willing to turn the other cheek as some high-octane challenges added to the excitement. James McClean, in particular, avoided an early caution, which allowed him to play his natural, blood, guts and thunder game for the remainder of the contest.
But while Ireland attacked, this Serbia side showed moments of why they came with such a high reputation, with slick passing, bursting out of their own half at ease, putting Ireland’s high line under pressure. Three touches in the 33rd minute almost burst Ireland’s bubble as Tadic, Kostic and Mitrovic combined, cutting in from the left, but were thwarted by a previously redundant Randolph who got down well to push the striker’s effort away.
Thumping finish from Kolarov after smart pass by Kostic. 1-0 to Serbia #IrlSer #RTEsoccer pic.twitter.com/BQ3RtAbJtY— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) September 5, 2017
Minutes later, as Ireland enjoyed another foray forward, Serbia again broke down the left with Cyrus Christie caught up field. But that man Meyler, once again, read the situation, sauntered out to meet the advancing wave of red and ably put out the fire.
The first half played out to the deafening renditions emanating from all round the arena as Ireland dominated the play, restored pride to the jersey and banished those lingering ghosts of Georgia.
A quick blast of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song over the tannoy would have been an apt soundtrack to send the side in at the break.
This particular battle was lost in the second half, and while Meyler’s man of the match award will prove scant consolation, perhaps his emerging influence can help Ireland gear up for a big night in Cardiff to help negotiate a perhaps priceless play-off.