Two points behind group leaders Italy in advance of today’s game in Bari, Ireland remain on course for the 2010 World Cup finals. Surely, the worst Trapattoni and his players can do now is finish second and book their place in a play-off, however, the draw with an understrength Bulgaria was definitely an opportunity missed.
If Richard Dunne’s headed goal from a Stephen Hunt free kick after just 40 seconds was the perfect start, the Irish failed utterly to build on their early advantage. Once more, the spotlight shone on the central midfield combination of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews which never has, and never will, major in creativity.
Minus the injured Damien Duff, and with Andy Reid in the wilderness and Stephen Ireland still not interested in representing his country, the Irish were mostly reduced to hitting hopeful long balls in the direction of Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle.
The tactic only created one opening for Doyle whose header lacked sufficient power, and from the moment Dunne scored, Bulgaria looked much the more progressive, positive side. They had the ball and the territory, and it was no great surprise when they levelled matters in the 74th minute when Stiliyan Petrov’s cross was deflected past Shay Given by Kevin Kilbane.
“I’m very, very disappointed,” said Kilbane, “but I think the goal could’ve been avoided earlier if their full-back had been closed down. When you’re in front for so long, it’s hard to take. In the second half we let them come on to us far too much, and ultimately that’s what cost us. You go 1-0 up so early you would hope that would ease us and release the tension a bit, but it didn’t work out that way.”
As Whelan and Andrews toiled, there was an extremely subdued contribution from Aiden McGeady who was troubled by a knee injury which made him doubtful for the clash against the world champions, Italy.
The bright points on a frustrating night for Trapattoni came from the central defensive partnership of John O’Shea and Dunne, but their solidity was undermined by the indecisive performances of both full-backs, Paul McShane and the unfortunate Kilbane.
“We got sucked into hitting quite a lot of long balls,” said captain, Keane. “I think we did it way too often. Bulgaria kept the ball really well and that’s something we should’ve done.”
As for the Italy game, Keane repeated his manager’s theme of the importance of not losing. “I think we probably would’ve taken our current position in the qualifying group at the start of the campaign. They’re obviously the world champions, so we have to frustrate them and try to keep the ball. We need to get the ball a bit quicker to Aiden McGeady and Stephen Hunt, we’ve got to give them better supply. As long as we don’t lose, that’s the most important thing.”