Limp Irish distracted by play-offs

Republic of Ireland 0 Montenegro 0
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The Independent Football

And so, Ireland end Group Eight with zero in the losses category but, rather than being hard to beat, this was simply a case of being hard to watch. This draw will disappear quickly from the memory, and the punters who were forced to buy a ticket for this bore in tandem with last Saturday's epic encounter with Italy were entitled to feel short-changed.

The only draw that matters now is Monday's in Zurich with the line-up finalised last night. It is now set in stone that Portugal, France, Russia or Greece shall be the opponent that stands between Ireland and South Africa. Whoever it is can fast forward through this encounter when they do their research on Giovanni Trapattoni's side. They were a shadow of themselves here and produced a display that was lethargic to the extreme.

Trapattoni broke with his own convention by revealing six changes from the side which drew with Italy, a move which reflected the manner in which this game had lost its importance. An entirely new midfield had been anticipated, with the only minor surprise being the decision to throw in Noel Hunt up front and rest Kevin Doyle.

The earlier than normal kick-off meant there was a sparse crowd when the teams emerged – and Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane were honoured for making it to 100 caps – and while it picked up by the time proceedings got under way, the tempo was low and excitement was lacking. Paul McShane flicked a header over the bar from a Damien Duff corner but it was hardly a major moment.

In the 26th minute, Ireland did have a real chance though when Stephen Hunt roved infield, eluded a handful of Montenegrin markers and slipped Duff into space but with options in the middle and space ahead, the strike on goal from the Fulham player was limp.

After a couple of speculative attempts from distance, Montenegro should have gone ahead shortly before the half-hour mark. A cross from Milan Jovanovic found the unmarked captain Branko Boskovic who burrowed between Sean St Ledger and Richard Dunne but duly headed over with Given stranded.

The Croke Park crowd responded by raising the volume. Yet it did not really spark the hosts with Montenegro enjoying a decent period until an incident which brought Martin Rowlands' evening to an end. The QPR man did well to cover after a Liam Miller error but lost his footing and got his boot stuck in the turf suffering what appeared to be ligament damage.

With no midfielders in his mould on the bench, Trapattoni opted to send for John O'Shea who took up the unfamiliar station. After the stoppage, Ireland created their best chance of the half when a pinpoint Stephen Hunt free-kick was nodded against the underside of the bar by Dunne.

It was initially more of the same in the second half with the crowd resorting to Mexican waves. Robbie Keane, frustrated by his lack of involvement, finally manoeuvred himself into space just before the hour but visiting keeper Vukasin Poleksic parried away his daisy-cutter. There was then a scare at the other end when Mitar Novakovic stabbed wide in a messy goalmouth scramble before the controversial moment of the evening.

Simon Vukjevic, the best Montenegrin on show, veered in off the right-wing to collect a clever centre and skip away from St Ledger and then Dunne. His goalbound shot was blocked by the hand of McShane but the referee missed it completely.

"We are a young nation but we believe that in future, our luck with referees will change," said Montenegrin coach Zoran Filipovic.

In the dying stages a clever Miller chip sent Duff scampering towards the byline but his fizzed cross inadvertently nutmegged Keane. Stalemate was inevitable thereafter.

Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Given (Manchester City); McShane (Hull), Dunne (Aston Villa), St Ledger (Middlesbrough), Kilbane (Hull); Duff (Fulham), Miller (Hibernian), Rowlands (QPR), S Hunt (Hull); Keane (Tottenham), N Hunt (Reading). Substitutes used: O'Shea (Manchester United) for Rowlands, 40; Best (Coventry) for N Hunt, 68; Keogh (Wolves) for S Hunt, 88.

Montenegro (4-3-2-1): Poleksic; Zverotic, Basa, Batak, Jovanovic; Pekovic, Drincic, Novakovic; S Vukcevic, Boskovic; Delibasic. Substitutes used: Dzudovic for Batak, 31; Damjanovic for Delibasic, 69; Kascelan for Boskovic, 81.

Referee: V Hrinak (Slovakia).