Ireland 0, Montenegro 0: Killian Woods reports from Croke Park as Ireland end World Cup group qualifying campaign with a disappointing scoreless draw.
With one eye on next week’s play-off draw, an under-strength Irish team took on Montenegro at Croke Park on Wednesday night. There were visible gaps throughout the crowd with roughly 25,000 tickets unsold. However, chanting from the Davin stand kept the tie lively from the start and seemed to add some life to this, the penultimate fixture in group eight.
There were many talking points before the match, with the likes of Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane notching up their 100th appearance in an Irish jersey, while brothers Noel and Stephen Hunt became the first pair of brothers to start for Ireland in a competitive match since David and Pierce O’Leary in 1980.
The game got off to a slow start with Ireland controlling early proceedings. Though, some pressure in the opening 15 minutes from the visitors called Given into action, prompting cheers from the crowd in support of the centurion. Damien Duff, who was injured for the match against Italy, looked lively from the start with most of Ireland’s chances on goal coming from his work on the right wing.
Unfortunately a suspension and an injury to the Montenegrin first choice forward pairing of Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vučinić didn’t allow the Irish supporters to see the best of the opponents attacking flair.
However, even though they were without the Italian based duo, good passing allowed them to spread the ball from right to left creating chances for their forwards. The first of which came when the full back Milan Jovanovic crossed the ball for Montenegrin captain Branko Boskovic. Although his header went just to the right of Shay Given’s post.
After carving out their first chance of the night, Montenegro took the initiative and started to grow in confidence. Keeping possession of the ball in the Irish half, they made the home side’s defense look nervy. A break in the visitors pressure came when Martin Rowlands went down injured after landing awkwardly and had to be substituted.
It was a shame to see his competitive starting debut come to a grinding halt due to reported cruciate ligament damage. With no designated central midfielder on the bench to call upon, Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni was forced to employ utility man John O’Shea to fill the gap in midfield left by Rowlands’ departure.
Just before half time Ireland stepped up their game and from a free-kick on the left wing, taken by Stephen Hunt, defender Richard Dunne rose above all challengers around the six yard box to aim a powerful header towards goal. His attempt ricocheted off the post and was cleared. Though, Ireland retained the ball and in the same passage of play, Robbie Keane had a half-chance after he latched onto a flick on from Noel Hunt; he hit over the bar from seven yards.
Ireland couldn’t carry over the pressure that they exerted in the final minutes of the first half as the first five minutes of the second half game played out in an erratic fashion. The Montenegrins continued to show composure and patience on the ball, allowing themselves to work their way up the pitch.
With 30 minutes to go in the game, the remnants of supporters who attended this penultimate World Cup qualifying match attempted to encourage the team in a hope to get at least a goal out of their mid-week trip to Croke Park.
Ireland and the visitors both had half chances mid way through the second half. A Montenegrin corner reached Mitar Novakovic in the six yard box but, was hit high and wide of Given’s posts. While Robbie Keane had an attempt from an acute angle on the right wing, with his shot being parried across the face of goal by Montenegro’s goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic.
After 68 minutes Noel Hunt, who was ineffective throughout, was withdrawn for Leon Best. The substitution coincided with Stephen Hunt and Damien Duff switching wings in an attempt by Trapattoni to try and take maximum points from Ireland’s culminating fixture in group eight.
The teams best opportunities to win the game came through free kicks given away by the visitors in and around their own penalty box. However, with the Montenegrins also looking to snatch an unlikely result to end their first ever qualifying campaign as a football nation, they should have had an opportunity take the lead from the penalty spot.
After some impressive dribbling by Simon Vukcevic in the 66th minute, he found himself in the Irish penalty box and managed a snap shot at goal which blocked by Paul McShane. Montenegrin players claimed for a penalty against the centre back’s questionable block down and their calls were wrongly put to one side, as replays showed that Vukcevic’s goal bound shot came off McShane’s hand.
Over hit crosses and long shots at goal summed up the final twenty minutes, as the game petered out after the penalty claim. Trapattoni made his final move to snatch a result when Stephen Hunt made way for Andrew Keogh in the two minutes before the end of normal time. Though, there was a sense that this opportunity for Ireland to table their fifth win in qualifying had passed the team by.
The game fulfilled the anticlimactic potential that it showed all the characteristics of achieving pre-match. While Trapattoni was nowhere near his usually exuberant self on the sidelines, with his attitude clearly transferring onto the pitch.
Any players hoping to catch his eye, in the hope of forcing their way into the starting team for the two World Cup play-off games on the 14th and 18th of November, did little for their cause. Unfortunately Martin Rowlands had to be replaced due to injury and did not get a chance to fully exert any influence on the game.
Noel Hunt was missing in action and nearly a forgotten member of the team against Montenegro. While Paul McShane was efficient at right back, he is unlikely to start ahead of John O’Shea. Likewise Liam Miller, who would have to perform a miracle to persuade Trapattoni to separate his preferred central midfield of Whelan and Andrews.
With little interest in talking about the minor incidents from the game, man of the match Stephen Hunt instead spoke out against the criticism from Eamon Dunphy and called on Irish fans to rally around the team. When asked about the comments of Dunphy and the player’s reaction he just grinned.
“The boys had a bit of a laugh about it … but in terms of being serious we can get more support from everyone it’s not about him, the fans that were here tonight and the other night were exceptional we love it when they are behind us, we try and give them everything we can,” said Hunt. When questioned if he had a message for the football pundit Hunt answered with with a sigh. “Give it a rest.”
With UEFA World Cup group qualifying now finished, all eyes are now focused clearly on Zurich, Switzerland for next Monday’s play-off draw. With Ireland placed amongst the second seeds, likely opponents are narrowed down to four teams. With Russia, Greece, France and Portugal possible opponents, in Stephen Hunt’s mind, “Any of them will do”.