Scotland's Euro 2016 dream is closer to reality after Ireland draw
Three observations from the Republic of Ireland's 1-1 draw with Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
1. Scotland cautious in Dublin
Gordon Strachan's Scotland appreciated that a draw would be a more than acceptable result, as they look to push for a top-three finish in Euro 2016 qualifying Group D, and that mindset affected their ambitions in the first half.
Eager to keep a tight formation and not give anything away, caution rather than ambition was their plan in Dublin. The lack of quality on offer from the Republic of Ireland ensured that Scotland were comfortable in their approach against their rivals.
Were it not for a lapse in concentration that allowed Ireland to score from a set piece from Jonathan Walters, Strachan's men could have headed into the break in comfortable shape, but it was to their credit that they changed the script at the start of the second half and got the vital equaliser.
It needed a touch of luck as Shaun Maloney's shot was deflected into the Ireland goal off the back of Ireland's John O'Shea, with the Chicago Fire striker coming to the fore once again for Scotland. He also scored the vital goal for his nation in the opening installment of this battle in Glasgow last November.
Ikechi Anya's introduction at the break gave Scotland some impetus down their left flank, and in the end, with the Watford star offering pace and invention that was lacking in the opening period and once they had drawn level, Scotland's comfort in securing the draw was rarely in doubt.
The cheers of the Tartan Army to the left of the manager's benches at the end confirmed what everyone present knew -- this draw was another huge step towards the Euro 2016 finals for Strachan's side.
2. Republic of Ireland's attack struggles
Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill offered up a major surprise as his team selection did not include Southampton striker Shane Long, who was widely tipped to start ahead of Robbie Keane for this pivotal Euro 2016 qualifier.
LA Galaxy striker Keane has lived through a nightmare in recent days as two of his cousins were killed in an accident at their workplace, meaning the participation of Ireland's record-breaking striker was always in doubt. The assumption was that Long would finally get the chance to start a big qualifier on home soil.
Instead, Ipswich forward Daryl Murphy got the nod from O'Neill, and while the combative forward claimed an assist for Ireland's opening goal from Walters after 38 minutes, his limitations at the head of the forward line were evident in the few half-chances that came his way.
After Scotland's fortunate equaliser at the start of the season half, O'Neill had little option other than to send Keane and Long into battle as his side went in search of the winner they needed to keep their Euro 2016 qualifying hopes on track. Yet by then, the momentum had been taken away from his side.
It was 25 years ago this week that the Republic of Ireland were making their mark on the biggest stage of them all as they gave England and Holland stern tests in the 1990 World Cup finals. While memories of that golden era for Irish soccer were revived in the build-up to this game, the class of 2015 confirmed once again that they are no match for the heroes of yesteryear.
Everton's James McCarthy continues to struggle an international level; his club colleague Seamus Coleman looks somewhat restricted in a green shirt, as has been the case for far too long. The invention and cutting edge Ireland are looking for were sadly lacking once more.
Ireland can still qualify for Euro 2016, but their fate is out of their own hands now. The excitable crowd that packed out the Aviva Stadium did not need to be reminded of that reality as the final whistle sounded.
3. International football still has meaning
Scotland cemented their position as favourites to secure a top-three finish in Euro 2016 qualifying Group D with this draw.
They now sit two points against of the Republic of Ireland, and after six games played in one of the most tightly contested qualifying pools and with Georgia away from home followed by a game against Poland on home soil on their horizon, Strachan's men can start to dream that they will claim one of the 24 qualifying places up for grabs at Euro 2016.
What of Ireland? They are firm outsiders to secure a playoff game to make it through to Euro 2016, and their slide into the pit of fourth seeds for the upcoming draw for 2018 World Cup qualifiers is also a concern. Being in a group with three top-class rivals may well see them frozen out of international football for some time to come, as they lack the quality to compete with the best teams.
But the bigger picture must be that this game reaffirmed belief in the international game as we have known it for so long. Anyone who witnessed the Republic of Ireland's woeful 0-0 draw against England in Dublin last weekend would have questioned whether international football was losing some of its sparkle outside of major tournaments.
Former England striker Michael Owen suggested in his exclusive interview with ESPN FC that international football was in danger of fading in significance, but this raucous occasion in Dublin suggested the game at this level still has so much to offer.
While quality was lacking on the field between the Irish and Scottish players, the passion of the fans in the stands and the excitement generated around the fixture cemented the hope of a brighter future for the game at this level.
Kevin Palmer is a sports writer. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealKevinPalmer.