Another week, another win.
It was, for 86 or so minutes, an utterly frustrating night at Jackman Park, as Limerick dominated in terms of possession, tempo and chances, but simply could not get the ball to go into the net. Another formational experiment, this time reducing the overall width of the team so that most of the play became focused on the centre produced a game where Limerick were able to pass the ball around with regularity, but the lack of flank threat showed considerably and the three strikers who played seemed to have simply left their shooting boots at home. Limerick are missing Gaffney big time.
The defence swung wildly from a relaxed looking back four sweeping the ball around with ease, to a suddenly nervy looking defensive horror show, playing balls straight to the away team with alarming regularity. Athlone had five glorious chances to score, missing all of them, leaving observers in no doubt as to why they are in the position they are at the moment.
Upfront, the initial pairing of Behan and Collins failed to really make as much of an impact on the game as they should have, though they were aided in this by a midfield that seemed bizarrely hesitant to play the ball forward at speed. The likes of Gamble and O’Brien were constantly taking one touch too many, and the service to the forward line suffered accordingly. Chances were made – three times the ball was drilled across the face of goal in the first half, looking only for a tap-in to open the scoring – but none of them were taken, Collins substitution for Dominic Foley not surprising when it came,
But even the new man couldn’t make up the difference, with a bunch of awful misses of his won as the second half ground on with no hint that Limerick could get the goal they needed. Queue a lovely flick on from Behan in the 86th minute, the big man moving further back to help out his defence and wings. A nice low cross from the right, a failed clearance from the opposition, and there was Sean Brosnan to get the ball, control, and lash it left footed into the net. A sheer explosion of joy inside Jackman Park, a real Steve Bruce against Sheffield Wednesday moment. Limerick saw it out. It was cruel on Athlone, who could easily have won the game by several goals, but Limerick finally got over all the frustrations.
The result, barring a mathematical unlikelihood, had already eliminated faltering Longford from the title equation, and this was made official as they fell at home to none other than SD Galway, the team ravaged by injuries and suspensions, now settling in for third place and preparing for a play-off. Waterford came close to making the last few games academic, but stuck it out to win 2-1 at Finn Harps, ending their impressive unbeaten run.
So, two games left in the First Division. Limerick lead by four points from Waterford, ahead of Longford by five. Limerick travel to Longford next Saturday, while Waterford host Mervue on Friday. Matching or bettering Waterford’s result will see Limerick promoted next weekend. Nearly there. Nearly.
Up top, Sligo have all but clinched the Premier Division after a crucial week in the title race. St Pats 2-1 win over Shamrock Rovers leaves the champs struggling to even get a European place next season, but the Saints couldn’t follow it up with a win over Drogheda at the weekend, sharing the points yet again. That leaves Sligo, following a 4-1 victory over Derry, eight points clear with four games left. Sligo look confident and assured of themselves as they go about their business, and could clinch the title at home to St Pats in just a few weeks time.
The rest of the table seems to have settled into a somewhat monotonous stroll to the line, as Bohs, Cork and Derry fight it out for mid-table honours, Shelbourne, Bray and UCD struggle for positioning further down and Dundalk, on the wrong side of a 7-0 drubbing from a hell-bent Hoops side this weekend, prepare from the inevitable play-off. As form goes, it looks like they will be playing Waterford, though it doesn’t seem like they could be capable of beating anyway at the moment.
Across the pond, the inevitable finally happened to Manchester United, as the weaknesses in every section of the field were finally shown up big time by a far superior outfit. The ageing, injury ridden defence was caught for pace repeatedly by the likes of Gareth Bale, the midfield looked anonymous when not in possession, and the strikers were left isolated and useless. A far superior performance in the second half, driven by the engine that is Paul Scholes, only helped to paper up the cracks. Now well into this truly frightening set of fixtures, United are struggling.
Elsewhere, Liverpool finally broke out of first gear with a commanding win over Norwich, though I remain unconvinced of their league credentials against better opposition. Manchester City stole it the end against Fulham, another suspect showing from the champions. It’s Chelsea who are the real team to watch it seems, a well-earned win away to Arsenal and top of the table still. There was an over-abundance of attention given to the Manchester clubs this summer when it came to picking title contenders, but there Chelsea are, flush with new stars and picking up results. They face United soon.