Belfast Telegraph

Republic given a hand to reach the Euro 2016 finals

Republic of Ireland 2 Bosnia & Herz 0

By Staff Reporter

Six years is a long time to wait for the capriciousness of refereeing decisions to even out but it was worth the wait for Republic of Ireland last night.

It may be of little consolation to those players denied a place at the 2010 World Cup by the official's failure to spot Thierry Henry's infamous handball in the Paris play-off, but fortune finally favoured the Irish.

This time the handball, midway through the first half by Bosnia's Ervin Zukanovic, looked accidental, but a sharp-eyed Dutch referee thought otherwise.

Jonathan Walters despatched the spot-kick putting the Republic 2-1 ahead on aggregate in this Euro 2016 play-off tie. This remained, however, a slim advantage and it was not until Walters struck again with 20 minutes left that a jubilant nation could begin to plan their celebrations.

The pre-match mood oozed with positivity in every medium. On twitter John Aldridge backed the Republic for a 1-0 win, in print Ronnie Whelan called Bosnia 'over-hyped', and on breakfast television a third former Republic international, Paddy Mulligan, went further than either as he dismissed the visitors as a poor side who lacked heart.

This message had not got through to the travelling fans, the self-styled Bosnatics, who thronged the bars of Temple Bar in late afternoon before heading out to Ballsbridge. They were cheered on arrival to find Edin Dzeko, who appeared to be carrying an injury at the end of the first leg, was playing.

The Roma forward started as a lone striker with Bosnian coach Mehmed Bazdarevic omitting Vedad Ibsevic to facilitate a switch by Miralem Pjanic to second striker. Although there were three changes Everton's Muhamed Besic, suspended for the first match, was on the bench.

The Republic manager Martin O'Neill had one change in personnel, but two positional. Friday's goalscorer Robbie Brady was asked to fill the problem position at left-back, reprising a experiment abandoned earlier in the campaign. Walters, suspended for the first leg, came in to join Daryl Murphy in a two-man attack supported by Wes Hoolahan. With John O'Shea unfit enough to start Ciaran Clark held his place in defence.

The tension showed before the game in a territorial dispute in the warm-up involving Robbie Keane and Bosnian players. Further edge came when a loud minority of the away supporters ignored the minute's silence for the victims of the tragedy in Paris. The home fans responded by booing, then turning the silence into applause.

Whether the incident unsettled their players or not is impossible to say but Bosnia began very nervously as the Republic, true to O'Neill's pre-match promise, took the game to them with a degree of panache. A raking move after nine minutes, begun by James McCarthy winning the ball in his own half, concluded with Walters meeting the overlapping Brady's cross at the near post and forcing a smart save from Asmir Begovic.

Ten minutes later the veteran Emir Spahic was lucky not to be given a red card as he followed up being booked for clattering Jeff Hendrick by kicking the ball away.

Four minutes later he had something to be angry about as Ervin Zukanovic was harshly penalised when Murphy's cross struck his trailing arm. After Senad Lulic was booked for protesting Walters sent his former Stoke City team-mate Begovic the wrong way from the spot.

Bosnia looked rattled and Spahic again flirted with dismissal chopping down Hoolahan. But they were not without threat. Dzeko hit the side netting and Haris Medunjanin volleyed over from Dzeko's knock-down as the Republic began to retreat. Nevertheless, they reached the interval with the precious lead intact.

Besic appeared at the resumption, and was soon involved as Bosnia penned Ireland back. Clark had to head a dangerous cross over then Lulic missed a fine chance from Edin Visca's cross. O'Neill reacted swiftly bringing on James McClean and Shane Long for Hoolahan and Murphy. Their fresh legs gave the Republic new impetus and they reached the last quarter with the Bosnians still at bay.

Then Spahic committed another crude foul, on Walters. He again escaped a card but suffered greater punishment as Brady finally got his radar right at a set-play. Ognejen Vranjes could only scoop the enticing cross into the air and Walters calmly volleyed in. The stadium erupted in delirious joy.

Long could have sealed victory with 15 minutes left when he stole the ball from Spahic but could not repeat his glorious finish against Germany and shot wide.

Qualification completes a remarkable double for O'Neill, who played in a World Cup for Northern Ireland, and will now lead the Republic into only their third European Championships.

Belfast Telegraph