FAI-asco Chilling and sorry end to most dismal of years in Irish football that no one will want to remember
Missed chances on the night, a missed opportunity to get a better stab at World Cup qualification and a forgettable way to end a year of international football which no one on this island will want to remember.
And the question facing Irish football after this dismal scoreless draw at home to Bulgaria, the seventh game in a row without a goal scored and the 10th competitive game without a win, is whether the national team really are in better shape than when this virus-ridden, disrupted international season began three months ago.
Germany’s horrific defeat to Spain 24 hours earlier had sports historians scouring the record books for the last time they lost so heavily, back in 1931.
For the Republic of Ireland came another damning indictment from history, the first time in almost 50 years that the Irish side have played a calendar year without a single win at senior level.
A virus unknown to anyone 12 months ago has made the world a grim, dark place. Right now, Irish football is stuck in a rut and with a painfully hard route to the World Cup finals ahead, the eyes really are straining to see light at the end of the tunnel.
The emergence of young talent like Dara O’Shea and Jason Knight, called in when older and more experienced players were unavailable, offers comfort, but the sight of Ireland failing to have a shot on target, bar one effort from Robbie Brady which struck the crossbar, at home to a severely weakened Bulgaria side, ranked 66th in the world, is as disappointing as it is distressing.
And if the business is winning matches while also trying to take steps forward, this Ireland set-up is not delivering.
Fingers will be pointed at Stephen Kenny in the months ahead, though the goal-scoring problem he now has is one he inherited.
But Kenny is no closer to the solution now than he was when he took charge in September. He’s was not helped by the shallow pool of talent available for this game, which provided proof that players like James Collins and Ronan Curtis may have desire and energy but they are way off what’s needed at international level.
But Kenny’s own decision-making, such as leaving Josh Cullen, the best player on the park in the last half-hour, out of the side and staying too loyal to the duo of RobbieBrady and Conor Hourihane, both of them struggling to impact a winnable home game, has to be questioned.
Black humour would suggest that Shane Duffy is a shoo-in to win the goal of the year competition with Ireland. If the panel of journalists asked to select that award thought they had it tough in 2018, with four goals in nine games, 2020 will be worse.
We missed out on a place at Euro 2020, but what was really lost with the draw at home to Bulgaria was a potentially easier route to on that already-difficult road to Qatar 2022.
Results outside of Dublin fell kindly for Ireland last night – a simple win, of any description, at home to Bulgaria would have secured for the Republic a slot as second seeds for the World Cup qualifying draw next month, but the win would not come.
Kenny had raised some eyebrows with a team selection which saw Jack Byrne benched again, while Ryan Manning came in for his debut with a first competitive starts for Ronan Curtis and JasonKnight.
Kenny tinkered with his formation slightly, deploying Jason Knight and Hourihane as a two-man axis in front of the back four with, therefore, big things expected of Robbie Brady who had Curtis and Daryl Horgan on the flanks.
Billed as a severely weakened Ireland side, the XI still had six players with Premier League experience but what followed was anything but top drawer.
Bulgaria looked far superior in possession and in their intent for long spells. They had a side made up of seven home-based players, their expats earning their crust away from the limelight at clubs in Turkey, Croatia, Denmark and Belgium – but they made up for their lack of names with some classy touches.
Overall, with even a slight touch of finesse from a front player or even a decent effort from a defender when presented with their best chance on 66 minutes, Bulgaria could have won this game.
They have been relegated in the Nations League and are about to look set to sack their manager and yet the came away from a bitterly cold Lansdowne Road with more to say about their game than an Ireland side which, albeit was missing key players, did not deliver.
It was a slip, though, by the away side which gave Ireland a break from the tedium in a dull first half on 17 minutes, a loss of footing by Aleksandar Tsvetkov gifting possession to DarylHorgan and he did well to get in a cross, but it was just beyond the reach of Curtis at the far post.
Then it was the turn of Ireland to show sloppiness in possession, ShaneDuffy with a slack pass which needed an intervention from Kevin Long, while on 27 minutes an awful pass from JasonKnight simply handed a chance to Dimitar Iliev. He seemed surprised to get in on goal so easily, took too long to set up his shot and made a poor attempt at troubling Darren Randolph.
Bulgaria were also a threat from set-pieces as Kristian Dimitrov did well to beat Duffy in the air, worrying again to see the Ireland captain bettered in the air, and his headed effort went narrowly over.
Horgan was the source of Ireland’s best chance of the half, good work out wide and a well-stuck cross which was met by the head of Collins.
His feisty display in Cardiff last week and his form for Luton had given weight to calls for him to get a chance in the side but his attempt was poor and off target.
If the first half was poor, things didn’t improve in the second 45 minutes. Twice in the early stages of the second half O’Shea set up Collins but his final ball was poor, and on 55 minutes the bright Jason Knight put in a superb pass for Curtis only for the Portsmouth man to fluff his lines.
Ireland came close when Brady struck the post on 68 minutes but they should have been 1-0 down by then, Dimitrov guilty of an awful miss with the goal at his mercy.
Even five minutes of added time offered no relief from the misery as Bulgaria took home the point which was not enough to avoid relegation, but their under-strength side, made up mainly of home-based players, made more of a point than a shot-shy, confidence-depleted Ireland.
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