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European Qualifiers: Republic of Ireland face the pain of play-offs after loss to Poland


Strength: Poland’s Robert Lewandowski holds off the challenge of John O’Shea

Strength: Poland’s Robert Lewandowski holds off the challenge of John O’Shea

Strength: Poland’s Robert Lewandowski holds off the challenge of John O’Shea

The prolific Robert Lewandowski was at his brilliant best to break Irish hearts in Warsaw and leave Martin O'Neill's side facing a play-off to qualify for Euro 2016.

The Bayern Munich striker's match-winning header gave Poland the narrow victory that ensured they automatically qualified next year's finals in France behind Group D winners Germany. The Republic of Ireland started the day in third place and knew they were at least certain of that spot regardless of what happened here. There was no change to Lewandowski's form, though, and he is now virtually a guarantee of goals.He has ended this qualification campaign as top scorer, and his 13 goals equal the record chalked up by David Healy during Northern Ireland's Euro 2008 campaign.

It certainly felt like a game in which both sides had the insurance of a play-off place before the game even started, as there was no fear about either approach.

Things began at a blistering pace, with Poland taking the lead after just 13 minutes, with that setting off a frenetic next six minutes.

After John O'Shea had denied Lewandowski in the box with a strong challenge, a Polish corner was sent towards the edge of the area where Grzegorz Krychowiak was waiting and he powered a brilliant low volley past Darren Randolph. While the finish was excellent, the Irish marking was anything but.

Poland had barely finished celebrating, though, when the visitors were level. Straight from kick-off, they went up the other end and won a dubious penalty. Although Michal Pazdan clearly kicked Shane Long in the head as he tried to compete for a loose ball - and was perhaps lucky not to be sent off - the incident happened outside the box. If referee Cuneyt Cakir made a mistake, though, Jon Walters was not going to do the same and he powered the penalty past Lukasz Fabianski.

As the frenzied action continued, Poland then thought they had retaken the lead just a moment later, as Krzysztof Maczynski had the ball in the net, but Lewandowski had strayed offside.

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The striker was looking angrily at the linesman again minutes later, as he felt he could have had a penalty when O'Shea appeared to shove him in the back.

On 42 minutes, European football's most in-form striker finally found that minimum of space he needs to maximise a chance, as he powerfully headed home Maczynski's cross - his 15th goal in his last six games in all competitions.

But while the Republic had fallen behind again, a 2-2 draw actually would have put them through at the expense of Poland. Things were still very much on a knife edge.

Nothing really changed in the flow of the game, though, as Poland continued to pour forward and the boys in green struggled to stem the tide. Lewandowski continued to look dangerous and Pazdan threatened with a header that flashed wide.

O'Neill was forced into a shake-up on 55 minutes but, even if the Irish needed one anyway, this would not have been the manager's choice as Long was taken off injured. The Southampton striker had received rough treatment throughout the game and his knock was the consequence of another bruising collision.

The Republic's all-time top goalscorer, Robbie Keane, came on with Aiden McGeady also replacing Glenn Whelan, and the team began to look a little bit more proactive in midfield.

It was still Poland creating the better chances, though, as Kamil Grosicki was slipped through one on one with Randolph, but the West Ham goalkeeper saved.

O'Neill was finally forced into the obvious change as Wes Hoolahan came off the bench on 73 minutes, and Ireland at last began to peg Poland back.

First, O'Shea's header flew dangerously across the box, before his centre-half partner Richard Keogh immediately went closer, forcing a brilliant save from Fabianski.

O'Shea was eventually forced into a crass challenge on Lewandowski towards the end, bringing a second yellow card for the Sunderland defender.

The Republic must hope for more forgiving opponents in Sunday's play-off draw.