Republic of Ireland 2 Slovakia 2: Elliot's hopes of making Euro 2016 dealt a blow
Rob Elliot's hopes of making it to the Euro 2016 finals and helping to keep Newcastle in the Barclays Premier League were dealt a major blow as the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia played out a 2-2 draw.
The 29-year-old goalkeeper, who was starting just his second game for his country, was carried off on a stretcher after appearing to injure his knee as he landed after diving in a vain attempt to keep out Miroslav’s Stoch’s 14th-minute opener.
Magpies boss Rafael Benitez will anxiously await news from the Ireland camp ahead of Saturday’s crucial trip to fellow relegation candidates Norwich with first-choice keeper Tim Krul already out for the season with a knee ligament injury.
In Elliot’s absence, the Republic rallied to take the lead through two penalties in as many minutes, the first converted by Shane Long and the second by James McClean in front of a crowd of 30,217.
However, Paul McShane’s unfortunate own goal on the stroke of half-time ensured both sides left the Aviva Stadium with something to show for their efforts.
Martin O’Neill’s men have now lost just once in 12 games, while fellow European Championship qualifiers Slovakia are unbeaten in five.
O’Neill, as promised, used the depth of his squad as he made 10 changes to the side which beat Switzerland 1-0 on Friday evening with Long, his only fit striker, the sole survivor.
That meant a chance for Elliot to force his way into the Euro 2016 squad and a first start for Bournemouth midfielder Eunan O’Kane, and there was a rare opportunity for Reading defender McShane, who last started a game for his country against Spain in New York in June 2013.
It proved to be an eventful first half for both Elliot and McShane, if for entirely the wrong reasons, as a rip-roaring encounter unfolded at both ends of the pitch.
Elliot’s evening lasted just 14 minutes when he injured himself trying to keep out Stoch’s emphatic finish from Erik Sabo’s cross after the midfielder had duped McShane on halfway.
Darren Randolph replaced Elliot but, following the early setbacks, things improved dramatically for Ireland as Norwegian referee Ola Ober Nielsen made his presence felt.
His decision to award a 21st-minute penalty for keeper Matus Kozacik’s challenge on Long looked extremely harsh, but the Southampton frontman sent Kozacik the wrong way from the spot to level.
Less than two minutes had passed when Slovakia skipper Martin Skrtel felled the same man inside the penalty area - this time, there was no question that it was a penalty - and McClean stepped up to make it 2-1 even though the keeper guessed correctly.
Ireland were in the ascendancy with Wes Hoolahan probing behind the makeshift frontline of Long and McClean with O’Kane also prominent.
But the Slovakians, who themselves threatened repeatedly through Marek Hamsik and Sabo, were very much in the game and got their reward on the stroke of half-time when full-back Peter Pekarik’s cross was deflected past Randolph by the luckless McShane.
O’Neill replaced Long, who had needed treatment before the break, and skipper John O’Shea with Robbie Brady and Alex Pearce for the second half and Brady, playing in a significantly more advance role than he had done against Switzerland, let fly from distance within four minutes of his arrival, although to no great effect.
Brady and Hoolahan did their best to push the home side forward, but it was the visitors who were playing the more fluent football as the hour-mark approached, if without real penetration.
However, they were in with 61 minutes gone when Hamsik combined brilliantly with Robert Vittek before sliding in Stoch, but the striker’s tame shot was easily saved by Randolph.
Regular substitutions interrupted the flow of the game as time ran down and although both sides battled gamely for a winner, chances were few and far between as the spoils were shared.