Heartache for Ireland Kenny’s men rue missed chances as Slovaks progress to play-off final
Euro play-off: Slovakia 0 Ireland 0
(AET, Slovakia win 4-2 on penalties)
DRAMA of the worst kind.
Ireland’s European Championships campaign ends after a day of rollercoaster emotions. It’s the misses in general play, and not the spot kicks, that will have haunted them on their flight home.
Stephen Kenny’s side showcased significant improvement from last month’s double header without ending his wait for a first goal and that ultimately cost the away side as Slovakia held their nerve in the shootout to convert all four of their efforts.
Misses from Alan Browne and Matt Doherty at the same end where Browne had struck the woodwork minutes previously spelled the end for their hopes of involvement in a major tournament on home soil next summer.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow after a day which tackled the theme that the preparation had run smoother for Ireland.
Hours before the game, it emerged that a second member of the backroom team had tested positive for Covid-19 and a consequence of that was the need to take Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah out of proceedings because they were deemed to be close contacts on account of activity across the week.
Connolly was due to start ahead of James McClean, and that late switch provided a more direct option on the left side than the threat provided by the in-form Brighton player. Slovakia had coped with the loss of two key players in the final 24 hours of the match, so this evened up the balance of disruption somewhat.
And the first half was disjointed in patches, with both sides probably heading for the dressing room thinking they might be ahead with a bit more composure in the final third. McClean was prominent for Ireland in the early stages with a Slovakian back four upset by the eleventh hour withdrawal of Milan Skriniar appearing ponderous when pressure was applied. Indeed, Callum Robinson, preferred to Callum O’Dowda, almost appeared surprised when a Slovak slip provided him with an early chance to strike.
That chance was blocked behind for a corner and resulted in an outcome that was replicated just before half-time when an Irish delivery was cleared and Slovakia threatened from a rapid fire encounter. First time around, McClean got back for a superb block to avert danger. Just before the interval, Darren Randolph got down well to push away a strike from Ondrej Duda with Slovakia enjoying a 3 v 2 situation at the start of the break. It was the only time Randolph had seriously been called into action.
However, his opposite number Marek Rodak was hardly overworked on the occasion of his second cap. Ireland were comfortably defensively in general play, with both sides enjoying spells of possession and the away side quite organised in terms of how they tried to press and create opportunities. There were passages where Slovakia looked shaky yet the final ball was lacking. Conor Hourihane was located deeper next to James McCarthy with Jeff Hendrick pressed on.
Hourihane functioned as a quarterback from deep to instigate some of the better passages. McCarthy worked hard to endeavour to close space, with Marek Hamsik still capable of showing his quality albeit in unthreatening areas from the Irish point of view.
Indeed, from the restart Hamsik almost made an inglorious contribution when he nearly diverted a Hourihane free past his own goal keeper with a nervous look before the ball trickled wide.
The Chinese based playmaker was soon involved at the other end, probing in a spell where Slovakia forced a series of corners, with short sharp passing at a high tempo briefly unsettling the white shirts. Ireland suffered another setback when McCarthy was lost to an injury, with Kenny using the opportunity to make a double sub with McClean departing to make way for Robbie Brady and Alan Browne.
Brady went to the right side with Robinson switched to the left and Ireland actually recovered well and forged their best opening with David McGoldrick’s skilled hold up play paving the way for an advance from Enda Stevens and a slick pass for Browne - who had taken Hendrick’s old station - with the Preston player’s right footer blocked by Rodak.
Ireland’s glorious miss was duly cancelled out by a near miss when Slovakian sub Lukás Haraslín darted in behind the exposed Doherty to collect a clever Hamsik pass and he found a way past Randolph only to be denied by superb Shane Duffy defending, taking the position to clear off the line.
Yet it was Ireland who were showing more intent as the end of regulation time approached with McGoldrick coming to the fore as it became more stretched with his composure allowing others to run off him and this was the avenue that picked open the Slovak lock with five to go. Alas, after a fine move, Robinson and then Browne worked the space for Hourihane but on his wrong foot his poor effort was straight at Kucka with Rodak beaten.
Extra-time loomed, and it was Ireland that came closest to preventing spot kick. McGoldrick’s instant attempt to break the deadlock with a turn and shot tested Rodak before sub Callum O’Dowda was at the heart of another fluid move that culminated with Browne poking against the post. That was the last sight clear of goal until penalties.