(Credit: Peter O'Doherty)
It was, Giovanni Trapattoni hoped, supposed to be the start of a new leaf for the Republic of Ireland but a fine first half goal from Greece's Jose Holebas was enough to inflict a fifth defeat in nine games as the 2012 international season drew to a close at Aviva Stadium on Wednesday night.
As the final whistle blew, there were seven former League of Ireland players on the field, with eight featuring in total. But, apart from a handful of good individual performances, there was little to shout about come the final seconds of what was overall, a very disappointing year.
Some of the players had earlier this week, rightly, spoken about paying back the supporters who were left mentally scarred by last month’s Germany mauling.
Yet with the smallest crowd since the stadium was revamped, and each cheer ringing hollow in the two-thirds empty confines of the vast arena, there was a definite sense that a good performance over Greece was never going to be enough to quash the horrific memories of the 6-1 drubbing.
Nonetheless, all but one of the players the fans wanted to see were on show from the outset. For quite some time the nation have been calling for the inclusion of Wes Hoolahan and though he started from the bench, the loudest shout of the evening was reserved for his introduction at the beginning of the second half.
In terms of positives Ciaran Clark, a player who Trap, prior to the lucky Kazakhstan escape, said wasn’t good enough to be an international defender, looked quite composed despite being booked for a meaty challenge on Jose Holebas nearing half-time.
Then again, he has been playing every week for Aston Villa, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see him make two well-timed interceptions early on. It was fair to say he looked much more settled than Darren O’Dea did a month ago.
Ireland did start quite well and should have had a penalty inside 45 seconds when Konstantinos Stafylidis handled a Stephen Ward cross from the left flank, but Israeli referee Eltan Shmuelevitz wrongly chose to ignore the calls.
They were largely dominant for the opening quarter of the game and it took just three minutes for Shane Long to show his pace with a burst past Sokratis Papstathopoulos. His strike partner Simon Cox, meanwhile, headed narrowly wide on 10 following a nice bit of link-up play from Seamus Coleman and Long.
It was no surprise to see the West Brom striker harrying the Greece defence, and despite giving away a couple of harsh fouls, he did well to set up James McClean in the 17th minute, the former Derry wideman shooting into the hands of Grestis Karnezis.
Greece took a while to get the engine started but when they did, it signalled the end of Ireland’s strong start as Sotiris Ninis forced David Forde – in as a late change for the injured Keiren Westwood – to make a solid diving save with the visitors’ first chance midway through the half.
They might not be household names in this part of Europe, but the FIFA rankings which Giovanni Trapattoni holds in such importance, will tell you they are in the top dozen sides in the world.
Then again, with Georgios Samaras, who has been given a new lease of life at Celtic of late, leading the line as skipper, they grew in stature following Ninis’ effort.
Whether it was Ireland losing focus for a moment or not, it was hard to say, but when Samaras played a simple but efficient pass to the feet of Jose Holebas just inside the area, he was allowed time to turn and fire a sweet low drive to the bottom left corner.
It was hard not to draw comparisons to the Germany game – where Ireland started quite well but once the opposition started to press, buckled under the pressure. Samaras and Panagiotis Tachtsidis both struck over as the away side took firm control heading towards the break, but it remained one zip at the interval despite Robbie Brady striking goalwards on the verge of half-time.
Ireland did, despite a lack of menacing goal attempts, play the better football, with Greece seldom threatening. But the home team just couldn’t find the final ball. On countless occasions the midfield would put half a dozen nice passes together only for the move to break down when it moved into the final third.
A glorious chance did arrive with a little over 20 minutes to play, a short free-kick to substitute Andy Keogh was deflected on to Stephen Ward but the left-back mis-hit his awkward punt from six yards and the ball trickled wide and out of the reach of the outstretched Kevin Doyle.
It was, frustratingly, the closest they would come to a goal in a dull finish to a year which yielded five defeats, three draws and just four wins from a dozen games.
Republic of Ireland: David Forde; Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Ward; Robbie Brady (Wes Hoolahan 46), James McCarthy (David Meyler 70), Glenn Whelan (Keith Andrews 33), James McClean; Simon Cox (Andy Keogh 60), Shane Long (Kevin Doyle 46).
Subs not used: Darren Randolph, Darren O’Dea, Stephen Kelly, Keith Andrews, Conor Clifford.
Booked: Long (36), Clark (42).
Greece: Grestis Karnezis; Vasileios Torosidis (Ioannis Maniatis 60), Kyriakos Papdopuolos, Sokratis Papstathopoulos, Konstantios Stafylidis (Nikolaos Spyropoulos 81); Sotiris Ninis (Loukas Vyntra 60), Alexandros Tziolis, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, Jose Holebas (Stefanos Nikol Athanasiadis 46); Georgios Samaras (Dimitrios Salpingdis 46), Konstantinos Mitroglou (Konstantinos Fortounis 46).
Subs not used: Konstantinos Peristeridis, Panagiotis Kone, Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, Elin Dimoustsos, Dimitrios Siovas.
Booked: Fortounis (83).
Referee: Eltan Shmuelevitz (Israel).
ExtraTime.ie Man of the Match: Seamus Coleman.
Alan Smith works as a sub-editor for the Guardian newspaper in London. Originally from Cork, he freelances for several other newspapers and websites. Follow him on twitter @alansmith90.
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