Stephen Kenny’s luck just can’t catch a break. For 89 minutes his Ireland team had fought bravely in defence, cleverly in midfield and (whenever the opportunity arose) cunningly in attack, but that was all undone in a matter of minutes from two excellent headers, from who else but Ronaldo.
While the outcome was expected the performance wasn’t, although the Summer friendlies against Hungary and Andorra had indicated signs of improvement after a horrendous run of results and performances.
Kenny had set his team up again with wing backs which had worked in the past, the big surprise was his deployment of Matt Doherty as left wing back, and it was a delight to finally see Doherty play well again after some underwhelming recent performances. Doherty was excellent in the first half linking up with Aaron Connolly on several occasions, as Ireland put in it’s finest first half under Kenny so far. The other surprise inclusion was Jamie McGrath starting in midfield, but he didn’t look a player that had played 8 minutes previously. Needless to say, McGrath will keep his place after as composed and accomplished full game debut as you are likely to see. Bravo
The game started as expected with Portuguese holding possession and after 15 minutes Ireland looked comfortable but a wayward pass within the Ireland box by young keeper Gavin Bazunu put Jeff Hendrick under pressure and he gave away a penalty. A penalty which referee Matej Jug took an age to finally confirm with VAR and watching replays on the pitch side tv. It was a very debatable penalty, but you can forgive that oversight, but what happened with Ronaldo when he struck Dara O’Shea violently on the arm after O’Shea had cheekily moved the ball off the penalty spot was a red card, pure and simple.
But Jug wasn’t going to ruin Ronaldo’s big day when he was all set to beat Ali Daei’s international goal scoring record of 109 goals. But Bazunu was, he dived high and to his right saving Ronaldo’s penalty, vindication had been served. The save roused Ireland and we put together solid attacking moves while handling the Portuguese well, they probed with little end product as O’Shea, Duffy and Egan were superb at the back.
Adam Idah and Connolly dovetailed nicely up top and were always an outlet to relieve some of the pressure off the team. There were several good moments of attack with just the slightest cut back or lower cross and Ireland might have scored, with wingbacks Doherty and Coleman at the heart of our best moves. Finally at the end of an absorbing first half Ireland had the first goal, Egan beautifully flicking in a fine header at the front post from a corner.
This wasn’t part of the script; Ronaldo’s big night been ruined by a terrible Ireland team suddenly playing like a highly accomplished European team. There would surely be a Portugal backlash in the 2nd half? Prior to kick off Ireland were an unbelievable 18/1 to win here, more a sign of how low we have fallen. As it happens, we were far better than 18/1 and if any punters had been keen on backing Ireland they’d have been rightly pleased with the first half showing, this wasn’t a wild online casino type of performance, it was measured and effective. A team finally working to the beat of the manager’s drum.
The expected Portugal tidal wave didn’t happen at the start of the 2nd half and it was much like the first, Ireland containing and striking back using good counter attacks, but as the half hit the 70th minute the Ireland team was tiring and Portugal were applying the pressure, Ireland’s defenders blocked everything corner after corner came to nothing. Connolly had a pathetic dive for a penalty that the ref rightly waved away and not long after he should have had a penalty after he was barged in the 6 yead box as he was just about to shoot.
But in the 89th minute Ronaldo finally got what he came for heading in a goal from a cross from the right side, and then heart break with the 5 minutes of extra time up the ref allowed another 30 seconds more so his pal Ronaldo just might get another chance, which he did, delivering another stunning header to break Irish hearts. The ref still had time to share a joke with Ronaldo and give him a coy yellow for taking his top off, it was as bad a referee’s performance as you are likely to see.
The next two games are key for Kenny, a minimum of 4 or 6 points must be bagged. We can’t perform like that, and the momentum fall away as happened with our two good away performances against Slovakia and Serbia. The unlucky tag can only last so long it’s time for results.
Words Adam Phelan