This past week has seen the Republic of Ireland play two pivotal games in World Cup Qualifying Group D for Russia 2018. Going into the away game against Georgia and the massive home tie against fellow group leaders Serbia, manager Martin O' Neill knew that four points were a must to give Ireland complete control of the group.
Going into the Georgia game I was always of the opinion that a point would be a super result in Tbilisi. Although Ireland got the point, it was the matter of how they played that was a real worry. Ireland took the lead after only four minutes when Shane Duffy headed home his first international goal for his country but that is we're the good news ended. Instead of pushing on and getting a second goal to see off the Georgians, the Irish were totally outplayed by the home side. Time and time again they conceded ground by giving away silly passes and I wondered sometimes did our lads know we were playing in green. After taking that early lead on the night, the way the Irish played it was only a matter of time before the home team scored and that they did in the 34th minute when Kazaishvilli found the net. It was a well deserved equalising goal by the home side as going behind in the fourth minute could have destroyed better teams. Overall it was a disappointing night for the Irish as they never really showed up as a team. The result brought all sorts of criticism from the media and the general consensus of opinion was that this performance had been Ireland,s worst in many a long day.
The Serbia game did not need to be hyped up by manager O' Neill as Ireland knew this would be a game not to lose against a tricky and talented Serbian side. The Irish went into the game still reeling from the fall out from the Georgian game after all the media criticism thrown at them. The atmosphere inside the Aviva stadium was electric as the fans felt this could be another one of those special Irish nights in Dublin. Martin O' Neill made two changes in his side from the Georgian game, bringing in fans favourite Wes Hoolahan and David Meyler to replace Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter, it seem to do the trick early on as Ireland played with a much better high tempo sort of game. Early on, Shane Duffy thought he had grabbed his second Irish goal in as many games when he headed home after only ten minutes, but his joy was short lived when the assistant referee raised his flag for offside. This seemed to ignite the crowd and the Irish pushed on to try and grab that all important lead goal but it just would not come. Time and time again Ireland waisted chances with awful crossing into the penalty area, it was either a case of hitting it to long or not getting past the first defender. In the second half it was much of the same and I just could not understand why O' Neill did not tell the players at half time to get the ball to the goal line and pull it back, as I felt this was the way to break down a pretty resolute Serbian defence. Although the Irish were playing so much better than in the game against Georgia they also knew that the Serbians could cause problems, which they duly did in the 55th minute of the game when a Kolorov thunderbolt gave them a one nil lead. It was a shot that not many goalkeepers in the world could have saved and it was clinical on the part of the Serbians. It gave Ireland a huge mountain to climb and they really never got half way up as the away side dug in to hold onto their golden goal. In the 68th minute of the game Maksimovic was sent off for a foul on Daryl Murphy who would have been clear in on goal had it not been for the challenge. The ten men dug in and held on for the win although Ireland did really put it up to them, the home side even had a big call for a penalty late on when Murphy was bundled off the ball, but the Turkish referee waved play on and with that decision saw Ireland,s chance disappear.
Ireland now move on to play Moldova at home and Wales away and they know if they can win both games they could still make it onto the plane for Russia next year. The Irish teams destination has basically come down to two cup finals and both games take on a huge importance now, not only for qualification but for the future of Ireland manager Martin O' Neill. On paper Moldova in Dublin should be three points for the boys in green, but the Welsh game will be a huge occasion for both countries and with the Welsh on a great run now it might be the winner takes all for the second spot in the group that will see either side make the play offs.