Jon Walters inspires Ireland in win over Bosnia-Herzegovina to reach Euros
DUBLIN -- Three thoughts from Republic of Ireland's 2-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Aviva Stadium in European Championship qualifying playoffs, which sent the hosts to Euro 2016 in France next summer.
1. Ireland reach Euro 2016
Ireland reach the heady heights of Euro 2016, and precisely because they brilliantly kept their focus. Bosnia-Herzegovina lost theirs on the way to losing this game 2-0 and the tie 3-1 on aggregate.
Even long before the excellent Jon Walters had plundered his brilliant second goal of the game -- and fifth of a supreme personal campaign -- Martin O'Neill's side had broken the visitors with all the vigour they had shown in beating world champions Germany 1-0 to set up this qualification.
Sure, the vital opening goal might have come from a hugely fortunate handball decision from a 24th-minute Ervin Zukanovic handball -- inverting Ireland's infamous playoff history from that Thierry Henry handball in 2009 -- but that's also the kind of test that has to be managed in qualifying. Bosnia -- pun unintended -- couldn't handle it, and increasingly buckled under Irish physicality and intensity.
The irony is that there was finesse to both Walters strikes. He outwitted his former Stoke City teammate Asmir Begovic to roll in the first penalty, before then placing it with power for the clinching second.
In between, Irish players -- especially Ciaran Clark, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan -- were winning every challenge that mattered. Walters then went and won the game.
Ireland reach their third ever European Championship and sixth tournament qualification overall. Few were achieved as emphatically and impressively as this.
2. Walters' fighting spirit inspires Ireland
It would be unfair to say that Ireland battled their way through a game in which they deserved to win throughout, but there's also no denying that it is a combativeness beyond many other international sides that has taken them to France. It is certainly what caused such problems for Bosnia here, and so unsettled them.
The hapless Emir Spahic, in particular, couldn't handle it. The rest of the Bosnian defence couldn't either, as that otherwise-fortuitous opening goal proved.
It wasn't any well-crafted move that forced Walters' penalty but almost sheer force of will, as Daryl Murphy hustled his way into the box to cross. That penalty might have been soft, but you can't say that about any of the rest of Ireland's game, as they make life so awkward for the opposition.
Walters actually personifies this, and he has undeniably been the player of Ireland's campaign. It is not just that he scores so many important goals, but how he imposes himself from the front to set a tone for the entire side.
That isn't all physicality either. On 19 minutes, Walters showed what Ireland had been missing in his absence in the first leg. He expertly took the ball down on his toe, instantly turning a long goalkeeper punt into a lively attack that brought Spahic's first booking of the game.
Then there was that brilliant second finish, which illustrated how it's not all physicality. Ireland seem to have added some finesse.
Behind him, then, Whelan personifies another core trait of the Irish side. He isn't the best in possession, but he is so good at breaking up opposition possession. Ireland brilliantly broke Bosnia here.
Thanks to Walters and the tone he sets, Ireland have made the breakthrough.
3. Bosnia-Herzegovina lost their cool
The great wonder for Bosnia is how they could never whip themselves up for this, how they could never get such talent to produce even one meaningful attack when it mattered and how they lost all balance as a team when the tie itself was still in the balance. So much talent, so much waste, except that -- yet again -- they didn't create all that much.
Manager Mehmed Bazdarevic seemed to realise that a flat 4-4-2 had sapped his team's fluency in the first leg, so he took Vedad Ibisevic out of the front two and went back to a 4-2-3-1. The goal was to release Miralem Pjanic -- who was so oddly stifled in an unimaginative first leg -- and he initially got on the ball more.
He didn't, however, bring the composure and calmness that should have followed. Bosnia were manic.
Throughout the first half, they seemed to get carried away with the objective of trying to score, without doing the core work that might have brought a goal rather naturally. This was the great frustration with Bosnia early on, even beyond the kind of chaos that Spahic was engulfing himself in. The defender set a tone in getting booked and giving the ball away.
Had Bosnia just been patient and tried to build through possession, in both legs, they probably could have unravelled Ireland much more easily. Instead, they were swept along with the swiftness of the home side's play.
It also meant they created very little.
That was one of the most dispiriting things about this display early on, as well as the first leg. A team with so much technical quality weren't really linking up to properly use it. There was finally a move of note here on 54 minutes, when Edin Visca burst down the right and squared for Senad Lulic, but he squandered a fine chance.
It was telling that, as the game wore on, Pjanic had to go further and further back to spray the ball exactly when Bosnia needed to go further and further forward. Bosnia just never got close.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.