Last night, over 46,000 fans showed up at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, hoping to catch a glimpse of something special, something that they could take home with them like a gift that they could open and peek at during the games played by Portugal in Brazil. They wanted a gift that would unwrap further and further and become even more precious should the team progress.
Before the team rosters were passed out, no-one was certain what to expect. Who would be starting? Would players be left out, still nursing injuries? MetLife Stadium is a good place to watch a game, but the field can be a concern. Grass is laid over the artificial turf surface creating a pitch that can be difficult for a player coming off an injury to manage. Additionally, Ireland has a reputation as a physical team. “We accept British teams play like that,” said Portugal coach Paulo Bento the day before. “We will prepare to face a British team such as Ireland is.”
“We will prepare as a team.”
When the fans realized what the press had just found out from the rosters, when they saw Cristiano Ronaldo take to the pitch with the other nine starters, a roar went up. The gift, as it were, had been given. Both teams played an aggressive first half, but Portugal controlled the game. Ronaldo tested the Ireland goal less than a minute in that raised a cheer from the crowd. When Hugo Almeida headed in a ball sent to him by Silvestre Varela in the third minute, the fans went wild. It seemed then like the Portugal squad would roll over Ireland in a festival of scoring. But the game settled, and Ireland created chances of their own, held on against Portugal. They held on even when, in the 20th minute, Richard Keogh scored an own goal on a Portugal cross. They didn’t crumble.
James McClean stood out for Ireland. He was everywhere at once, unafraid to challenge, tackle, win the ball back, and kept the Ireland team together even though Portugal scored again when Cristiano Ronaldo sent the ball to Almeida in the 37th minute and Portugal went up by three, taking that lead to the locker rooms for the half.
Ireland came out strong for the second half, and within ten minutes scored when McClean sent one across and into the far side of Rui Patricio’s goal. Minutes later he drew a yellow card near the center circle for a tackle on Ronaldo. Robbie Keane entered the game in the 63rd minute, taking the Captaincy from Jon Walters, and taking the hint from the exchange, both teams began to substitute in earnest. No-one was more effective coming on than Nani, who assisted with both of Portugal’s goals in the half, himself another gift in the increasingly heavy package that the fans had come here for. In the 77th minute he sent to ball to Vierinha. Vierhina, heading the ball unsuccessfully sent his own rebound in. In the 83rd minute Nani passed to Fabio Coentrao, who tapped it in. 5-1.
As we recently wrote, Ireland is a team looking toward the future. And that future, as Martin O’Neill said in the press conference, starts in September with the Euro 2016 campaign. He was soft spoken in his remarks, but to regard that as a reaction to the final score would be wrong. He liked what he saw in the second half, as the team ‘started to get together’. This game was something he felt that they had to play, had to take and learn from.
Paulo Bento, in his comments to the press, said that ‘physically, all players are fit to play.’ Adding that it is ‘good to have the whole squad available.’
Everyone got a gift last night. For Ireland, it was like a pair of socks or a science set, something useful and educational. For Portugal, it was the reality of having a full and healthy squad for their first match against Germany. For the fans, it was seeing a team play well, and the hope of that team going far in Brazil.
Watch the highlights from the Portugal-Ireland game here: