Rep. of Ireland vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina: Winners, Losers from Euro 2016 Play-off
Republic of Ireland advanced to UEFA Euro 2016 following a 2-0 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina on Monday night in Dublin. Coupled with last week's 1-1 draw in the first leg, Ireland completed a 3-1 aggregate win.
Jonathan Walters was the hero, scoring both goals as the hosts clinched a second straight berth in the European Championship. Walters broke the deadlock from the penalty spot in the 24th minute after a controversial handball decision from referee Bjorn Kuipers. The Stoke City man then sealed the result with a 70th-minute volley to send the hosts to France next summer.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team," manager Martin O'Neill told Sky Sports (h/t BBC Sport). "I hold the players in the highest esteem. They don't have everything, but courage and determination are things they have in abundance."
Here, Bleacher Report selects winners and losers from the match.
Winner: Jon Walters
No doubt about it: Jonathan Walters was the hero of the night.
In the 24th minute, the Stoke City striker beat former teammate Asmir Begovic with a perfectly placed penalty to give Republic of Ireland the lead. The calm, confident finish was exactly what the hosts needed to calm nerves and provide a platform for success in the second leg.
Walters then doubled the lead in the 70th minute with another cool finish, volleying in at the back post after Ognjen Vranjes was unable to clear Robbie Brady's free kick from the left. After calming nerves with his first goal, Walters kicked off massive celebrations inside the Aviva Stadium with his second.
After the match, Walters told Sky Sports (h/t BBC Sport):
There was a whole team of heroes out there - we got there in the end. It is the best moment of my career in any shirt—to qualify for the European Championship finals is unbelievable. You've got to take in this atmosphere, these moments don't come around in a career very often. The management team deserve lots of credit—they have been excellent throughout the campaign.
The goals continued a fine run of form at international level for Walters, who has now scored five goals in his last six appearances for his country.
The timing was perfect for Ireland. According to Opta Joe, Walters has netted in three of his side's last four competitive home matches, a record that helped spur the team to Euro 2016.
And as ESPN FC's Richard Jolly pointed out, this performance represented just the latest chapter in Walters' remarkable personal story. Nine years ago, Walters was playing in League Two. On this night, however, he led Repubic of Ireland to Euro 2016.
"Jon Walters: been the soul of this Ireland team all the way through," tweeted the Guardian's Ian Prior.
This is an obvious choice, considering Bosnia and Herzegovina were losers on the night and on aggregate. But it's more than that. The nation's fans must be so disappointed: Their players had more technical ability and seemingly more talent, and yet Ireland advanced somewhat comfortably in the end.
What was to blame? Whether it was grit, a goalscorer or end-product in the final third, Bosnia lacked something integral. Perhaps it was all those things, or maybe it was something else. As WhoScored's Ben McAleer pointed out in the second half, Bosnia had committed 13 fouls (at the time) and won just five tackles.
"Serious lack of discipline," McAleer noted.
Whatever it was, Bosnia will have to watch Euro 2016 from home after being outplayed over two legs by a team with lesser talent. For a side that was seeded highest in the play-off draw, that last statement should be distressing.
"Bosnia have been so poor in both legs of this tie," Bleacher Report's Matt Jones tweeted. "A shadow of the bright, attacking team which qualified for the World Cup."
Winner: Darren Randolph
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill faced a difficult situation when goalkeeper Shay Given went down with an injury during qualifying. O'Neill turned to Darren Randolph, who started Ireland's final three matches in qualifying, including Monday's win.
Randolph didn't have much to do on the night, but he did record the clean sheet and got the job done for his side. Most importantly, he filled a need for Ireland during a crucial time in qualifying.
"It's unbelievable—I couldn't have written that script," Randolph told Sky Sports (h/t BBC Sport). "Thankfully I got to play some games and we're through—that's all that matters."
Loser: The Handball Rule
Was it a handball? Or was it a harsh penalty decision?
Your answer might align with your allegiances, but online observers seemed to believe that Republic of Ireland's first goal against Bosnia and Herzegovina resulted from a soft penalty.
In the 23rd minute, Daryl Murphy turned inside the box and clipped a cross into the middle. The ball struck the arm of Ervin Zukanovic, prompting referee Bjorn Kuipers to award a spot kick.
"As soft as they come," tweeted ESPN and Fox analyst Janusz Michallik.
"Bog goal for Ireland. Harsh handball awarded against Zukanovic," tweeted the Times' Tony Barrett.
Others could feasibly disagree, claiming Zukanovic gained an advantage for his side despite having his arm near his torso.
Either way, the rule is vague and probably needs changing, as ESPN FC's Michael Caley hinted on Twitter.
With more explicit rules, with less room for interpretation, much of the controversy would go away.
OK, so Republic of Ireland might have benefited from a dodgy penalty decision. But we can all agree that they might have had a little luck coming.
In 2009, as you might recall, Ireland lost to France in a play-off for the 2010 FIFA Word Cup after Thierry Henry (intentionally) handled a ball in the box to set up the decisive goal.
Monday's incident was far less clear-cut, and as football writer Cristian Nyari noted, fate might have been on Ireland's side. "Suppose this is some ironic cosmic karma for Ireland - a controversial handball call in a qualifier to reach a tournament in France," Nyari tweeted.
Winner: The British Isles
Republic of Ireland's aggregate victory wrapped up a remarkable qualifying campaign for the British Isles.
In Group E, England won all 10 matches, becoming the only nation to complete a perfect qualifying record.
In Group B, Wales pushed heavily favored Belgium all the way and managed to qualify for a first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.
In Group F, Northern Ireland beat Romania and Hungary to the top spot and qualified for their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.
Only Scotland, who finished fourth in Group D, failed to qualify. Republic of Ireland, of course, reached the play-offs by finishing third in the same group.
The British Isles performed very well in qualifying, but now preparations will turn toward making an impact next summer in France.