While Martin O’Neill was hoping to receive clarity surrounding the final positions in his squad, the manager may have had more questions than answers at the conclusion of a desperately flat performance that improved only on the introduction of some first-choice players towards the end.
Goals from Mikhail Gordeichuk and Maksim Volodko earned Belarus an unexpected victory in Cork, although Stephen Ward pulled one back for Ireland in the 71st minute. Scouts from their group opponents Belgium and Sweden, plus French and Austrian representatives, were unlikely to depart the south coast perturbed by what they witnessed, regardless of the considerably weakened team.
Quite a strange atmosphere encompassed the buildup because of O’Neill’s determination to leave his squad announcement until after full-time, at which point he planned to break some bad news to an unfortunate quartet outside the dressing-room door one by one.
While the Bournemouth midfielder Harry Arter returned to England after pulling up lame during training on Monday, undoubted concern remained over Robbie Keane’s calf injury. That issue, sustained during training on Saturday, kept the country’s captain and all-time top scorer out of this final warm-up and placed his previously guaranteed inclusion in the 23 in doubt right up until the manager’s declaration.
Keane along with James McCarthy, whose hamstring problem has improved, were the only outfield players in the extended squad not to kit out. They were left to observe anxiously as those on the pitch staked a desperate late claim for a ticket to France.
The starting lineup in Cork sent out by O’Neill – entirely different from the 11XI that began Robbie Keane has been included in the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad despite having a calf injury, with Martin O’Neill omitting David McGoldrick after the Ipswich Town striker impressed in last week’s friendly against Holland.
The captain was still limping pitchside before the game against Belarus but his condition is understood to be improving and O’Neill is hopeful both Keane and Everton’s James McCarthy will be fit for their opening game against Sweden on 13 June. McCarthy was put through his paces at the team’s training camp before last night’s friendly defeat by Belarus.
McGoldrick’s club-mate Daryl Murphy is also included, despite again failing to open his international account on his 21st appearance. There is also a place for the Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Keiren Westwood, who is named instead of Millwall’s David Forde. The Oxford winger Callum O’Dowda and Darron Gibson, a passenger for much of the 2-1 defeat at Turner’s Cross, have also been cut.
Harry Arter returned to England after scans on Monday night showed a tear in a thigh muscle but the Bournemouth midfielder will remain on standby should McCarthy suffer a reaction to the hamstring injury that has troubled him for the past fortnight. O’Neill cut a subdued figure when addressing the media immediately after informing the squad of his final decision. “Robbie is very hopeful that he will make it,” he said. “He should be OK, if not for the first game then maybe the matches after that. I’m guided by my doctor and Robbie, who is a good healer.
“James is showing an improvement, which is good news and we will see how he goes. He is a fit lad but hasn’t played in a fortnight. Some other players haven’t played for a while either.”
The final friendly did not go to script, though. While O’Neill was hoping to receive clarity surrounding the positions in his squad, the manager may have had more questions than answers at the conclusion of a desperately flat performance that improved only on the introduction of some first-choice players towards the end.
Goals from Mikhail Gordeichuk and Maksim Volodko earned Belarus an unexpected victory, although Stephen Ward pulled one back in the 71st minute. Scouts from their group opponents Belgium and Sweden, plus French and Austrian representatives, were unlikely to depart perturbed by what they saw.
Quite a strange atmosphere encompassed the buildup because of O’Neill’s determination to leave his squad announcement until after full-time, at which point he broke the bad news to the unfortunate quartet. “I told them in person,” he added. “It was better than being by text. It’s not easy because someone is going to be disappointed. Other managers have had to make the decision in the past couple of days. It’s my job.”
Amid the apprehension Belarus were somewhat ignored before the game. The only widely recognisable name in their contingent was the former Arsenal player Alex Hleb but Aleksandr Khatskevich’s team were still eager to provide an inconvenience. While the first chance fell to Ciaran Clark five minutes in – he could not find the target when rising to head a Ward cross from the left – the visitors took the lead in stunning fashion. Mikita Korzun bundled David Meyler off the ball inside the Belarus half and fed Igor Stasevich on the right. He galloped forward before squaring to Gordeichuk. The midfielder took one touch before sending a rocket into the top right corner from 25 yards.
Though only three of the starters here probably have a case for inclusion in the tournament opener against Sweden on 13 June, O’Neill must have been disappointed with the anaemic performance. At least Ireland began the second half with renewed vigour and Murphy almost made it 1-1 within a minute when heading an Aiden McGeady cross over the bar. Clark had another two opportunities before the night got worse for the hosts.
Another Belarus break, this time on the left, saw Volodko skip past Cyrus Christie and his deflected shot nestled in Given’s bottom left corner. The goalkeeper was replaced soon after by Forde rather than Westwood. The Wednesday keeper was in impressive club form and Forde, a key player in the early qualifiers, has been stuck to the bench at The Den – which swung the decision for O’Neill. “It was difficult because he has been excellent for us but he hasn’t had much game time recently. That didn’t help.”
Ward made it 2-1 with a sweet finish across goal and O’Dowda was introduced for a lively debut. However, an equaliser never arrived and the squad headed nervously to the dressing room before learning their fate.
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