Long fightback falls short after rampant Russia catch Irish cold

Republic of Ireland 2 Russia 3
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The Independent Football

In the end it was close, thrillingly so, but this morning Giovanni Trapattoni will watch the DVD and he will not be fooled.

The Republic of Ireland had the chance to seize control of Group B last night but they never looked like taking it. Instead they were outclassed by a Russian side that evoked memories of their run to the semi-finals of Euro 2008 with their slick passing.

Ireland were three down soon after the break and, although two goals in seven minutes from Robbie Keane and Shane Long transformed the game, and the mood, they had left themselves too much to do. Now there is a log-jam at the top of Group B with these teams and Slovakia, who Ireland visit on Tuesday, all on six points from three games.

Notwithstanding Slovakia's shock defeat in Armenia, Ireland will have to play a lot better in Zilina than they did here. While Russia moved forward with alacrity, Ireland were over-reliant on the long ball forward to the poorly-supported Keane and Kevin Doyle. The dribbling of Aiden McGeady offered an alternative, but his final ball rarely matched his approach play. In midfield they were poor.

"Tactically we played really well," said Dick Advocaat, Russia's Dutch manager. "We pushed up on their central midfielders and forced them to play the long ball early." Trapattoni admitted Russia had surprised him with their formation, which was a surprise in itself as their 4-3-3 was widely predicted in the Irish media. Taking solace in the effect Ireland's goals might have in the eventual standings he stressed this was a group in which everyone can lose.

Ireland's players carried upon their shoulders an intangible, but nevertheless heavy responsibility to lift the national spirits. The public finance deficit is projected to be 32 per cent of GDP, which, as The Irish Times pointed out, would be "the highest ever recorded in a developed country in peacetime". An awful lot more than child benefit for higher-rate tax-payers is being cut on this side of the Irish Sea.

However, the Argentine World Cup side of 2002 fell apart under the pressure of providing a diversion to a failing economy and the Albiceleste of Gabriel Batistuta, Walter Samuel and Juan Sebastian Veron was a much more talented group than Trapattoni has at his disposal. In the Irish starting XI last night were four players at Championship clubs and three who spend most weekends on the bench at Premier League ones. Their lack of match fitness, said Trapattoni, was a problem.

Ireland started brightly enough, McGeady running at the visitors' defence in the seventh minute to prompt a burst of pressure during which Keane chipped a cross onto the bar and McGeady himself twice threatened.

The impressive new stadium rocked with noise, but three minutes later fell silent. Poor marking from a harshly-awarded free-kick, taken by Andrei Arshavin, ultimately resulted in Alexander Kerzhakov scoring from close range. Seventeen minutes later, during which Ireland had failed to mount a meaningful attack, Russia struck again. Alexander Anyukov galloped down the right, his cross was beautifully dummied by Kerzhakov and Alan Dzagoev turned the ball past Given.

Either side of the break Doyle, then McGeady, tested Igor Akinfeev but any prospect of a comeback seemed to have disappeared in the 50th minute. Roman Shirokov, having driven forward from deep without any semblance of a challenge, decided to chance his luck. His shot struck Richard Dunne's out-stretched leg and flew past the wrong-footed Given. Ireland never gave up and were given a route back into the game 20 minutes from time. Keane took a dive in the box as Yuri Zhirkov chased him and won a dubious penalty. Keane calmly converted. Suddenly the Irish, and their supporters, woke up and the Russian goal was placed under siege.

The bombardment brought early reward when Given's deep free-kick fell to McGeady and, though Akinfeev denied him, Long followed up to score. However, much to the relief of Pavel Pogrebnyak, guilty of an extraordinary injury-time miss at the other end, there was no fairytale ending.

Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Given (Manchester City): O'Shea (Manchester United), Dunne (Aston Villa), St Ledger (Preston NE), Kilbane (Hull); Lawrence (Portsmouth; Long, Reading, 61), Green (Derby), Whelan (Stoke; Gibson, Man U, 65), McGeady; (Spartak Moscow); Keane (Tottenham Hotspur), Doyle (Wolves; Fahey, Birmingham, 70).

Russia (4-1-2-3): Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow); Anyukov (Zenit St Petersburg), V Berezutsky (CSKA), Ignashevich (CSKA), Zhirkov (Chelsea); Denisov (Dynamo Moscow); Zyranov (Zenit; Semshov, Dynamo, 67), Shirokov (Zenit); Dzagoev (CSKA; A Berezutsky (CSKA), Kerzhakov (Zenit; Pogrebnyak (Stuttgart, 79)), Arshavin (Arsenal).

Referee K Blom (Netherlands).