Montenegro 0 Ireland 0
MONTENEGRO belied their lowly standing as sixth seed in Group Eight by holding Ireland to a scoreless draw in Podgorica in this World Cup qualifier last Wednesday.
The home side had been unlucky to concede a late equalizer to Bulgaria four days earlier, and after the fixture Irish boss Giovanni Trapattoni declared himself satisfied to emerge with four points from two games on the road.
There were positives to be taken from the Irish performance, but this was a low-key encounter in which neither team had the resolve or creativity to force a goal.
Richard Dunne and John O'Shea were very solid at the center of Ireland's defense and O'Shea, who made a vital block on Jovetic after Kevin Kilbane was dispossessed, produced one of his best international displays.
Played in 33 degrees, the Montenegrans were better equipped to deal with the heat but Trapattoni's side competed very well without opening up the opposition.
Steven Reid was unable to make the impact he made against Georgia, and Glenn Whelan got through a ton of defensive midfield work. Outside them Stephen Hunt and Aidan McGeady offered some width and covered back resolutely but rarely beat the cover to stretch the home defense.
This left Robbie Keane and the industrious Kevin Doyle living off scraps up front, but Ireland's set-pieces were wasted with poor deliveries from Hunt, McGeady and Reid.
Dunne and O'Shea were able to deal with lone striker Mirko Vucinic, and most of Montenegro's offensive threat came through midfield. Whelan got involved in breaking up attacks, but with Reid carrying an injury from Saturday Ireland needed someone to hold the ball and link with the outside men and forwards.
Keane appeared to be held back from a corner but Estonian referee Sten Kaldma let it go. Ireland had another penalty call just before the break when Hunt's curling cross put Radoslav Barak in trouble with a bouncing ball that he clearly handled inside the box. The referee waved play on and a relieved Barak cleared.
Ireland's best move involved a break down the left in the second half with Keane releasing McGeady down the right. The winger might have pulled it across goal but instead shot wildly and hit the side-netting. It was a bad miss and McGeady held his head knowing it was the clearest chance Ireland would have all evening.
Vucinic then got in behind Kilbane to draw a fine save from Shay Given. The Donegal man then made a marvelous save when a Jovetic free clipped off O'Shea and spun wickedly left to right. Given reacted brilliantly to dive full length and turn it around the post.
Keane then conjured up a fabulous effort with a scissors kick that flew straight at Poleksic. It was a snap effort that proved to be Ireland's last shot on target. Trapattoni opted against making any changes although Reid was struggling and neither Hunt nor McGeady were making any real impression. It was a curious decision by the manager because the heat was evidently taking its toll on the Irish players and the game had turned into a stalemate.
In settling for a draw Ireland came away with a point when a bolder move would have seen them chase a win. It was a disciplined, well-organized performance but very short of penetration up front and too goal-shy to trouble Montenegro's goalkeeper.
"I think the result is fair," suggested the Irish manager. "I knew before the game that the opponents were very, very hard. I told the players to be careful and in the first half they were a little bit stronger than us. But we were very well organised. We have a good defence and we played without making mistakes.
"In the second half we controlled the game better, we grew in confidence and the players understood what I said to them - that it was possible to lose and they should run down the clock if they could."
It was a cautious gambit because Montenegro, although far better than a sixth-seed would suggest, are beatable at home. "We will see if this is a point gained or two points lost," added Trapattoni. "If you ask me right now, I'll tell you that I'm happy. We played a good game and we were not beaten."
Italy's 2-0 home win over Georgia moved them top of Group Eight with maximum points. Ireland will next face Cyprus in Croke Park on October 15 with a home win essential if the Irish are to stay serious about qualification for World Cup 2010.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland played out a very creditable 0-0 draw with the Czech Republic in rain-swept Belfast. Theo Walcott claimed a hat-trick in England's outstanding 4-1 defeat of Croatia.
Scotland beat Iceland 2-1 in Reykjavik while Wales were unlucky to lose 2-1 in Russia. Surprise of the night was Luxembourg's shock 2-1 victory in Switzerland.