Republic of Ireland 2 – 1 Armenia
The play-offs loom once more for the Republic of Ireland after Richard Dunne’s goal settled the battle for second spot in Group B in a fiercely fought and eventful game that saw both sides finish with 10 men. But the Republic go into Thursday’s draw knowing they may be without their two first choice strikers for the knock-out ties.
With memories of Thierry Henry and that night in Paris still lingering, it was the Republic’s turn tonight to enjoy a hand from the referee as he
harshly dismissed Armenia ‘keeper Roman Berezovsky on 26 minutes for handling outside the box, with replays showing the ball made contact with only his chest as he rose to block Simon Cox’s attempted block. Further replays showed that Cox himself had handled the ball before shooting, again missed by the referee.
Fewer complaints were made when Spanish referee Eduardo Gonzalez gave Kevin Doyle his marching orders following a second booking for leading with the elbow in an aerial challenge against Karlen Mkrtchyan. This, along with doubts surrounding Robbie Keane’s fitness, mean Ireland may go into their first play-off match next month with a makeshift line-up in attack.
The Berezovsky red turned the game in Giovanni Trapatonni’s side’s favour though as they took the lead in the 42nd minute thanks to a comical own-goal from Valeri Aleksanyan who needlessly stroked a harmless Irish cross into Armenia net.
Even then the Republic looked far from secure until Dunne fired home Aiden McGeadie’s inviting cross just before the hour mark. The Boys in Green managed to hold on after the second red and will look to avenge the play-off hurt of 2010.
Spain 3 -1 Scotland
A David Villa brace ended Scotland’s hopes of a play-off berth, despite a late fight back following David Goodwillie’s maiden international strike and a valiant performance against the World and European Champions.
Craig Levin’s men will take solace in their performance, a sign that they continue to head in the right direction, but will perhaps rue missed chances to pull themselves back into the tie after Goodwillie’s 66th minute spot kick, his first touch after coming on as a sub, for a foul by Victor Valdes on Craig Mikail-Smith. The Blackburn striker then spurned a glorious chance to make it 3-2 with 20 minutes remaining, shooting violently wide after a powerful run down the right, while Mackail-Smith stood unmarked and aghast in the centre.
Realistically though Spanish victory looked assured from the moment David Silva’s dangerous cross was calmly slotted home by Villa to give the home side a 3-0 lead ten minutes into the second half. Silva himself had opened the scoring on six minutes when a long period of Spanish possession and intrinsic passing culminated in the Manchester City man beating Alan McGregor at the near post.
Villa made it 2-0 just before the break just as Scotland had looked to be gaining momentum, and in failing to at least match the Czech Republic’s result tonight, they finish third in Group I whilst the Czechs advance.
Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland
An inexperienced Northern Ireland side were unable to pull off an upset in Nigel Worthington’s last game in charge, as Group C winners Italy strolled to a rudimentary 3-0 victory that left them unbeaten in qualifying and ten points clear atop the group.
Antonio Cassano opened the scoring after 20 minutes with a sumptuous volley to turn a Daniellie De Rossi through ball past Maik Taylor. Cassano then doubled the lead ten minutes after the break, latching onto Alberto Aquilani’s pass and firing low into the corner. Irish misery was furthered when Gareth McAuley did his recall hopes no good, conspiring to turn into his own net when the ball appeared to be within Taylor’s grasp.
Ryan McGivern came closest for the Ulstermen in the first half, forcing Gianluigi Buffon to turn his headed shot wide, but it was only thanks to an assured keeping performance at the other end that the deficit was kept to three, as Taylor pulled off fine saves from first Riccardo Montolivo and then Sebastian Giovinco in the second half.
A sorry qualifying campaign see’s Worthington’s four year reign end with Northern Ireland fifth in the group. An impressive Italy though will head to Poland and Ukraine as one of the competition favourites.
Wales 1-0 Bulgaria
An outstanding performance from Gareth Bale saw him grab the only goal of the game as Wales ended their Group G campaign with back-to-back victories.
A superb run down the right saw him outmuscle two defenders, before he cut inside and watched his deflected shot creep over the line. Bale almost capped his performance with a second just before the break, his shot ricocheting of the underside of the bar.as the Welshmen dominated proceedings.
It may not have been a vintage performance, played out as it was on a heavy pitch in front of barely 1,000 spectators, but despite finishing fourth in their group, Gary Speed’s promising side head into the World Cup qualifiers with renewed confidence.