SHANE Long’s 14th international goal handed the Republic of Ireland a priceless win over world champions Germany and blew the race for Euro 2016 qualification wide open. The Southampton striker came off the bench to thump a 70th-minute thunderbolt past the helpless Manuel Neuer to hand the Republic their biggest competitive victory since they defeated the Netherlands in a World Cup play-off in 2001.
Ireland’s success, coupled with Poland’s 2-2 draw with Scotland, means that Martin O’Neill’s men are guaranteed a top-three finish and a play-off place at worst, but they will head for Warsaw on Sunday knowing they could still top Group D.
It was a night for heroes at the Aviva Stadium as O’Neill’s depleted team stood firm in the face of a German onslaught and took their chance when it came in front of a delirious full house of 50,604.
O’Neill sprang something of a surprise when, with defenders Seamus Coleman and Ciaran Clark injured and midfielder Glenn Whelan suspended, he handed Burnley defender Stephen Ward a first cap since November last year with only a single Capital One Cup appearance to his name this season.
Richard Keogh, Cyrus Christie and, again to raised eyebrows, Daryl Murphy also got the nod against a Germany side featuring seven of the men who played in the World Cup final in Brazil last summer.
Predictably, Joachim Low’s men dominated possession. Less predictably, they failed to do a great deal with it as Ireland keepers Shay Given and Darren Randolph, who replaced the injured 39-year-old two minutes before the break, did not have a single save of note to make.
For that, they were indebted to skipper John O’Shea, who blocked Ilkay Gundogan’s 13th-minute shot over his own bar, and Richard Keogh who managed to prevent Mesut Ozil from reaching Matthias Ginter’s cross two minutes later.
The visitors thought they had taken the lead when Thomas Muller drove the ball across the penalty area and inside the far post as Ozil tried to get there ahead of Given, although whether or not he got a touch was irrelevant as the offside flag halted German celebrations.
There was little let-up after the break as Germany pressed Ireland ever deeper, but once again, the Republic responded in dogged fashion.
They were almost undone ten minutes after the restart when Marco Reus latched on to a long clearance and crossed for substitute Andre Schurrle, whose volley at full stretch flew high and wide.
The game was opening up, although at times dangerously so for O’Neill’s side, although the home fans were off their seat with 64 minutes gone when Murphy blasted a long-range effort just wide of the upright after Wes Hoolahan’s initial shot had been blocked by Mats Hummels.
Long replaced Murphy almost immediately and the newcomer had only five minutes to wait for his big moment, running on to Randolph’s clearance and hammering the ball past the stranded Neuer to raise the roof at the Aviva.
The clocked ticked agonisingly through four minutes of stoppage time before referee Carlos Carballo’s whistle sparked mass celebration on and off the pitch.