Improbable recent results in Group B of the Euro 2012 qualifiers have determined that, health should the Republic of Ireland win their final two games, they will be guaranteed at least a play-off place. A hard-fought 0-0 draw in Moscow, largely courtesy of heroics by Shay Given and Richard Dunne, combined with a shock Armenian victory in Slovakia leaves Ireland in control of their own destiny. The aforementioned four teams are separated by three points in what is undoubtedly the most closely contested of all the Euro 2012 qualifying groups.
The Republic made the journey to the Russian capital still trying to recover from a lackluster scoreless draw at home to Slovakia the previous weekend. Manager Giovanni Trapattoni watched on as his team were outplayed from start to finish by a side that created up to 26 chances and enjoyed nearly two thirds of the possession but thankfully for ‘Trap’ Ireland somehow secured the most unlikely of draws.
Richard Dunne turned in one of the performances of his international career. He made several vital interceptions and a brilliant goal-line clearance to deny the talented Igor Shemshov. Former Irish legend Paul McGrath called it the greatest performance of an Irish centre back, tweeting “Richard Dunne congratulations. The best performance I have seen from any Irish centre-half and that includes myself”. Shay Given too shook off the back trouble that had made him a doubt for the game 48 hours earlier to produce a string of crucial saves. It was another example of his enduring class. The manager hailed the pair as “fantastic” afterwards.
The Irish team may well be encouraged in the aftermath of these results, but it cannot be denied that we were outplayed and outclassed for large parts of both matches. Midfielders Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan are tenacious and plucky but they are ultimately out of their depth at this level, lacking the flair of an international footballer. After good performances in the Carling Home Nations matches, Stephen Ward looked worryingly vulnerable at left back relying on more experienced defensive comrades to rescue him on more than one occasion. ‘Trap’ has underutilised players at his disposal who could make Ireland a far more threatening side. Going into the crucial Andorra and Armenia games, most Irish fans would love to see exciting young players like James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman link up with what will hopefully be a revitalised strike force of Robbie Keane, Shane Long, Kevin Doyle and Aiden McGeady.
Be that as it may, Ireland’s Euro 2012 destiny is in their own hands. A victory for group favourites Russia against the Slovaks would make their position virtually unassailable with only Andorra left to play. However a Russian defeat would put even more importance on what already is gearing up to be a crucial match in Dublin against Armenia. Nothing is yet certain in this group and we can expect a few more twists and turns before the final whistles are blown in the last round of matches.