By Ger McCarthy
The result was all that mattered
Irrespective of the quality of football on display, the result was all that mattered from tonight’s Cardiff showdown. Ireland overcame a dreadful first half, weathered the storm whilst Wales dominated possession and calmly played their way into contention.
Darren Randolph, Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark proved a formidable defensive trio on an evening Wales threw everything at their opponents in the final quarter. A better team might have made Ireland pay for their lack of creativity but credit Jeff Hendrick for keeping alive an apparent lost cause and crossing for James McClean to wallop in a marvellous strike.
An electric atmosphere helped deliver a competent rather than spectacular Irish performance but Martin O’Neill won’t care one iota as his squad begin preparations for a World Cup play-off.
McClean underlines his worth
James McClean has been one of Martin O’Neill’s most loyal servants since the Northern Irishman became his international manager. Two crucial goals in the 3-1 victory away to Moldova were followed by the winner in a 1-0 victory in Vienna, underlining McClean’s importance to his team.
In Cardiff, the West Bromwich Albion winger delivered when it mattered most, firing the ball beyond Wayne Hennessey to send the Republic of Ireland into a World Cup play-off.
The 28-year-old’s maturity over the past twelve months owes much to O’Neill’s man-management and the Derry native was on hand to apply the finishing touch to Ireland’s winning goal during another all-action display.
Lack of goals still an issue
It’s clear from the Republic of Ireland’s qualification record that their goals against column was as favourable as any in Group D. Yet, an inability to regularly find the net could have cost Martin O’Neill’s side a play-off berth until James McClean popped up with a cracking strike.
An over-reliance on set pieces, Shane Long’s wretched run of form plus Jonathan Walters’ injury woes meant Ireland lack a clinical finisher and would have paid the ultimate price but for McClean’s second half intervention.
Long-term, Martin O’Neill desperately needs to unearth another Robbie Keane. Thankfully, there is no shortage of suitors, including Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan who have recently emerged on to the international scene, desperate to make an impact at the highest level.
Together is still stronger
Chris Coleman deserves immense credit for maintaining the feel-good factor around Welsh football and building on their Euro 2016 despite falling short in attempting to reach the World Cup play-offs.
Looking back, five consecutive draws scuppered Wales’ chances of a first finals appearance since 1958 despite Coleman once again getting the best out of Hal Robson-Kanu, Joe Ledley and James Chester as well as introducing Ben Woodburn and Tom Lawrence.
It is worth remembering that Wales moved within touching distance of a trip to Russia despite losing their talisman Gareth Bale for their final two group outings. The Dragons may be down but their future remains bright.