Ireland 0-0 Slovakia; The Aftermath


74th minute. Damien Duff is sizing his opponent up, trying to find a way past him just outside the corner of the box, on Ireland’s right wing. He shifts the ball over to his left, and his marker doesn’t follow him the whole way. Does he realise that Duffer is left footed? Who knows. Either way, there’s the opportunity to cross! And he does so. Has a quick look up – all he needs – and sees his captain and Ireland’s record goalscorer with 51, Robbie Keane, unmarked in the box.

The cross is perfect. It really is; Duff couldn’t have offered Keane with better service if he took the ball back and had twenty other swings at it, even pressure free. Is history about to be written? Are Ireland going to win the game and push on and reach the 2012 European Championships? Keane leaps up – !

And misses… Somehow. Unmarked and unbothered, he sends his headed effort over the bar, barely worrying Jan Mucha in the Slovakia goal.

Last minute – a hardly deserved second chance. Slovakia have been pretty good, but ultimately not good enough to win it or anything. Their captain Marek Hamsik, inspirational for Napoli all season, has been anonymous, although the manager’s son Vladimir Weiss has been a threat all night.

Another cross comes in. Is it finally time to replicate the heroics of ten years ago, when The Boys In Green managed to claim the scalps of Stam, Overmars, Kluivert and van Nistelrooy’s Holland to reach the 2002 World Cup? Another fine cross comes in – this time from the opposite wing. Seán St. Ledger is the man at the far post who is aimed for.

But unfortunately heartbreak is the only thing that the centre back, who to be fair played very well in his defensive duties throughout the game, can give the Ireland fans. Despair instead of ecstasy. Dejection rather than delight. Anguish in place of delirium. The headed shot is missed, by a long way.

The Ireland v Slovakia game was a must win. The next round of fixtures will see Trapattoni’s men travel to Russia and the Slovaks host Armenia. Russia currently lie top of the group, and after already gaining three points against Ireland so far this campaign, all signs point to another Russia victory there.

Slovakia will be buoyed by a good away point in Lansdowne Road last night, and while Armenia are no pushovers, you’d have to imagine Weiss’ men won’t have too much of a problem getting by them. Should both of those probablies come true, Slovakia will sit three points ahead of Ireland, with Russia a further two ahead of them – with two games remaining for everybody.

It’s still technically in Ireland’s own hands. As long as they can better Slovakia’s results they’ll be able to make it to the playoffs, like they did for the 2010 World Cup which nobody needs reminding about. But a win against them would have made the world of difference. It would have provided a massive cushion for Ireland to fall back on, should the probable happen and Russia and Slovakia both win their next games. Had Ireland won in that case, then they’d still be in poll position to claim the playoff berth, as they’d be level on points with Slovakia but ahead of them on the head to head rule, with two teams in the lower half of the table only left to play.

But even though it’s still in Ireland’s hands, the task that The Boys in Green face is a tougher one than what Slovakia’s boys in Blue are looking at. Slovakia have Macedonia away in one of their other games, which on paper (but only on paper, of course) is an away win. There is some solace that Ireland can take in that Slovakia’s third remaining game that I’m yet to mention is at home to group leaders Russia.

Trapattoni

The Russians will provide a stern test for Weiss and co., and it’ll be the fixture that everyone will point to in hope of a window of opportunity to be created. But unfortunately for Ireland, Slovakia have already defeated the Russians earlier in the group – in Russia. That result by no means predicts a full time score for the upcoming game, but at the end of the day it shows us that they can get the better of Russia in a decisive game.

Things aren’t looking good for Trap’s army. There’s a steep uphill mountain to be climbed, while the Slovak’s hill is at a more even level. Should it turn out that Ireland finish 3rd in the Qualifying Group, and ultimately not good enough, the writing could be on the wall for Giovanni Trapattoni. Two unsuccessful qualifying campaigns for major tournaments may be enough for the FAI to say “that’s enough, we’ll look for a new man now.”

2012 will be the Italian’s fourth year in charge of the Republic of Ireland. The two previous holders of the post both lasted a less amount of time; Brian Kerr (2003-2005) and Steve Staunton (2006-2007). This record could be pointing to the end of Trapattoni’s era, should the Italian fail to guide Ireland to Ukraine and Poland next year.

However, I of course hope to be proven wrong. I hope that Russia away, Andorra away and Armenia at home aren’t too big a challenge for the Irish team to face. I hope that Slovakia trip up against Armenia, Russia or Macedonia (or even all of them) and Il Trap sees the Boys in Green through to the Euro 2012 group stages, at least. But really thinking about it, I can’t see it happening anymore after failing to beat Slovakia in what was a must win and opening up a three point gap between them.

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