Another game, another ponderous performance from the Republic of Ireland. If you're going to blame anyone for Ireland's stuttering Euro 2016 qualification campaign, it certainly can't be directed at the fans. The Aviva Stadium was rocking on Saturday evening for Ireland's showdown with Scotland and, despite a fairly underwhelming string of performances prior to the game, the sense of optimism in Dublin was palpable.
However, the home side couldn't quite muster up a display worthy of the passion emanating from the stands. It was another highly frustrating 90 minutes for Martin O'Neill and his Ireland side - an emotion that has come to characterise much of the former Celtic manager's time in charge.
O'Neill once again found himself attempting to breathe new life into Ireland's bid to reach France on Saturday evening, but came up against a resurgent Scottish side who look much better value for a third-placed finish behind Germany and Poland in Group D. For a man who was hailed as a genius during his time at Leicester City, and won plenty an admirer during a productive project with Aston Villa, the Kilrea man finds himself uncomfortably close to watching his managerial career peter out.
Sunderland was a bruising experience for him. He departed the Stadium of Light after a winless streak of eight Premier League games. Beleaguered and visibly dispirited by the club game, many thought taking over from Giovanni Trapattoni as manager of Ireland was the perfect opportunity to reignite his passion for coaching. However, more than 18 months into his tenure, O'Neill is still waiting for that first win to truly usher in a new dawn for the Republic and their aspirations of joining the other Celtic nations at the European Championships look to be hanging by a thread.
This was the chance to go in front of Scotland. But we are not out of it. Genuinely not out of it," he said post-match. "I have seen groups before and things turn and twist. We are looking too far forward to be looking at Germany and Poland but it might come down to us needing something from those two games." While it may be true that Ireland can still haul themselves back into the equation, it looks unlikely on the basis of their last two performances.
O'Neill's men can perhaps be excused for lacking some bit in that Sunday stroll friendly with England that will be forgotten by anyone who watched or attended it, but their dull, unimaginative display against Gordon Strachan's Tartan Army can be seen as a yardstick for Ireland's lack of progression in the post-Trap era.
At the Aviva Stadium, Scotland appeared authoritative and superior to their counterparts, in an alarmingly similar manner to when Shaun Maloney's beautifully curled effort gave them three precious points at Hampden Park back in November. Again, O'Neill cut an extremely exasperated figure on the touchline as Ireland huffed and puffed, exploding at one point after Wes Hoolahan's inability to effectively instigate a counter-attack. For a first-half of reasonable Irish promise, the meeting descended into another vexing afternoon for the men in green.
Ireland created very little from open play, with Jon Walter's point-blank strike originating from a set-piece, also benefitting from David Marshall's inadequate stop from Daryl Murphy's header. The delivery from that set-piece came courtesy of Robbie Brady's cultured left-foot, but other than dead-ball situations, the winger was quiet and unconvincing.
For whatever reason, O'Neill continues to think of Walters as a right-winger, even though he is effectively a huge lump of mass with no pace. While they are unpredictable and mercurial, the options of James McClean and Aiden McGeady would have been better suited to the needs of a supply-starved Murphy leading the Irish line.
The effort and industry of James McCarthy can't be ignored, but he and Glenn Whelan - who were described by RTE pundit Eamon Dunphy as 'paper players' - do not offer enough creativity and cutting-edge threat from midfield, something O'Neill appeared to acknowledge in his post-match comments.
"We have to try to become more creative," acknowledged O'Neill. "We have to try to have midfield players scoring goals. This is it. Players have played a lot of international matches and we don't score a lot of goals. We don't score them. It is there in black and white.
O'Neill's future is there as in black and white, too. Failure to reach the Euros ahead of Scotland would surely cost him his job, and Ireland will find themselves back at square one again.
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