JAMES MCCLEAN PENALTY EARNS IRELAND DRAW AGAINST SLOVAKIA
JAMES McClean got on the score sheet as Ireland ere awarded two first-half penalties as Martin O’Neill’s side played out a 2-2 draw with Slovakia at the Aviva Stadium last night.
It was the visitors who broke the deadlock as Miroslav Stoch crashed home the opening goal in the 14th minute.
Shane Long won both penalties for Ireland.
He dispatched the first in the 22nd minute before James McClean grabbed the second two minutes later as Ireland took the lead.
The Creggan lad later tweeted: “Great to get on the socre sheet tonight, not a win but alot of positives to take.”
He was also pictured after the game with his proudly holding his daughter Allie Mae in his arms.
On seeing the picture, fiancee Erin Connor tweeted: “Very proud of these 2.”
Paul McShane deflected the ball home to hand Slovakia their second as half-time approached and while both sides had chances to win it in the second half, neither could make the breakthrough in this entertaining affair at the Lansdowne Road venue.
An interesting opening as the Irish formation, or lack of it, revealed itself with Wes Hoolahan drifting over and back with the look of a man who was told to go out and enjoy himself.
And it all looked very natural for Ireland in those early exchanges as Eunan O’Kane slotted in very comfortably in front of Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy, while James McClean took residence on the right flank.
The visitors were also looking to play the ball around and it was no surprise when their highly rated midfielder Marek Hamsik made the first attack of note in the third minute as the Napoli man drifted past two Irish players before playing a neat one-two with centre-forward Robert Vittek.
Ireland had numbers back, however, and as was the case on Friday night, they absorbed the pressure and quickly spat the ball back into their opponents’ half.
And the Irish gradually started to make inroads into the Slovakia final third, with everything going through Hoolahan. Shane Long dropped out of attack to link up well, while Cyrus Christie was taking every opportunity to get down the right wing.
Eventually, the first shot on target arrived in the 12th minute as a quick counterattack saw Long race out of his own half before feeding the ball into the feet of McClean, cutting in from the right.
The Derry man’s touch and pace saw him get within range and he unleashed a ferocious shot down to Matus Kozacik’s left, but the keeper got down well to save.
Just as Ireland looked to be bossing the encounter, a moment of sloppy defending saw the visitors take the lead with 14 minutes on the clock.
Paul McShane was dispossessed out on the halfway line, allowing Eric Sabo to race clear on the right wing and with no one near him, the midfielder cut inside and looked to be bearing down on goal.
But former Chelsea midfielder Miroslav Stoch arrived into the box at pace and Sabo’s pin-point pass dissected the retreating Irish, allowing Stoch to crash the ball back past Rob Elliot in the Ireland goal.
Elliot appeared to twist his right knee as he dived back across his goal and the Newcastle netminder was stretchered off in what could be a season-ending injury.
Darren Randolph was sent in to replace the departing Ireland keeper.
It was certainly silly season in the Lansdowne Road venue as Ireland were awarded two penalties within three minutes, which turned the game on its head as O’Neill’s side suddenly enjoyed a 2-1 advantage.
The first arrived in the 21st minute as O’Kane tried to play Long in, but it looked like the ball was played too close to the keeper and the byline.
Long, as always, made the run and while he got a touch on the ball before going over, the keeper also made clear contact with the ball and the penalty decision proved very harsh indeed.
The fairness of the decision was far from Long’s mind as he sent the keeper the wrong way, tucking the ball into the bottom left corner to restore parity.
Keeper Randolph may claim an assist for the second penalty as his long ball out of defence – reminiscent of a certain night last October at the same venue against the world champions – found the ever-eager Long whose touch took the ball past the retreating Slovakia defence.
Liverpool man Martin Skrtel was then beaten for pace by the accelerating Ireland attacker and made a most clumsy challenge, going through the back of Long to give the referee an easy decision.
Long must not have fancied another spot-kick so soon after his first, so McClean took the opportunity and drove the ball low to the opposite corner with the pace just beating the hands of the outstretched keeper.
After all the commotion, an expected lull arrived in proceedings as Ireland looked very good value for their lead, controlling the pace and tempo of the game.
But there was an element of sloppy play about the makeshift defence as McShane put John O’Shea under undue pressure with four minutes remaining to half-time and the skipper’s clearance was rushed.
Slovakia played the ball immediately back into the danger zone where O’Kane had spotted the threat and played a risky header back to Randolph, who gathered with little to spare.
And it proved a sign of things to come as the visitors grabbed an equaliser on the stroke of half-time as Peter Pekarik bombed down the right wing to get on the wrong side of the out-of-position Stephen Ward.
Pekarik whipped the ball across the face of goal and while it beat Robert Vittek arriving at the near post, it took an unlucky deflection off the chest of McShane to divert the ball past the Irish keeper.
The half-time team talk would take on a different perspective as the sides went in level at the break.
O’Shea and Long were replaced at the break, which meant that Ireland had no natural striker on the pitch, with the attacking duties now split between Hoolahan and McClean.
The fast-paced drama of the first half was replaced by a slow-moving period piece after the break as both sides dropped the intensity levels.
A Hoolahan snap-shot and a Stoch effort proved the two closest chances that were offered up in the opening 15 minutes.
Ireland, however, were getting themselves into dangerous positions in the final third and coupled with some very sloppy defending, were awarded two free-kicks in prime positions on the edge of the Slovakia box.
Robbie Brady stepped up on both occasions but could not test the keeper with either effort – disappointing for a man of his set-piece ability.
In between the free-kicks, in the 66th minute, came Ireland’s best chance of the half as Christie again advanced and his powerful cross found Hoolahan at the back post.
The former Shelbourne man managed to help the ball back across goal but the arriving Brady was unable to turn the ball home, the keeper doing well to get there ahead of the stretching Brady.
More substitutions arrived as Anthony Pilkington, Aiden McGeady and Jonny Hayes were thrown into the fray for the final stages, with Cardiff man Pilkington taking over the baton in the centre-forward role.
The Slovakia bench was similarly emptied but there was only one side trying to win this game as the match entered the final ten minutes.
It was one-way traffic with the Boys in Green pushing for the winner, with Hayes enjoying a bit more of the ball than he did on Friday and looking dangerous taking on the right back.
But there was to be no late excitement to be had as both sides have bigger things on their minds with Euro 2016 starting to loom very large on the horizon.
Ireland: Rob Elliot (Darren Randolph 16); Cyrus Christie, John O’Shea (capt) (Alex Pearce HT), Paul McShane, Stephen Ward (Jonny Hayes 79); James McCarthy, Eunan O’Kane (Anthony Pilkington 66), Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan (Aiden McGeady 73), James McClean; Shane Long (Robbie Brady HT).
Slovakia: Matus Kozacik; Peter Pekarik, Martin Skrtel, Jan Gregus (Patrik Hrosovsky 74), Stanislav Sestak (Robert Mak 64), Miroslav Stoch (Vladimir Weiss 64), Erik Sabo (Ondrej Duda 64), Kornel Salata, Dusan Svento (Lukas Tesak 88), Marek Hamsik; Robert Vittek (Adam Nemec 64).
Referee: Ola Ober Nielsen (Norway).