By virtue of the fact that the players only had a total of four training sessions (three before the first game in Sofia and one before the Finland game in Dublin), it was always going to be likely to be able to read more into the second game of Stephen Kenny’s tenure against Finland in Dublin on Sunday than the game in Sofia last Thursday.
There were certainly positives from the first game against Bulgaria. Aaron Connolly as ever was a livewire bustling around the pitch. Adam Idah did well on his senior international debut, albeit he was isolated on his own up front often.
Robbie Brady did very well in midfield when he came off the bench. Darren Randolph in goal also looked steady and assured despite having little or no game time over the last year at club level.
There were standout positives in terms of the statistics associated with the game. Ireland had 59% possession, completed 612 passes and had a pass success rate of 91%. These are statistics which are a big improvement on recent years and what was also encouraging was that nobody panicked as the game edged towards its closing stages.
The goal Ireland conceded though came from a terrible defensive mix-up, with Shane Duffy in particular culpable. Of course Duffy has plenty credit in the bank and he scored a typical towering header to equalise at the death in Sofia.
On Sunday in Dublin, Finland nearly took the lead early on when the normally ultra-reliable Teemu Pukki forcing a great save from Randolph.
Overall, Finland proved to be a stronger opponent than Bulgaria but in the early stages of the second-half Ireland really showed much more intent.
Finland took a 0-1 somewhat against the run of play of the second-half on 64 minutes. The home side were caught napping as Fredrik Jensen was introduced with Harry Arter’s over enthusiasm resulting in the ball being given away from a throw-in with Brady and Jayson Molumby caught in an awkward position. Jensen nipped in to feed Pukki and then sprint into the penalty-area with Robert Taylor playing a great ball across the six-yard box for the assist and an inviting cross was put into the empty net from close range by the sliding Jensen with the Irish defence flat-footed.
After that, Finland grew in confidence and had a few decent chances to extend their lead.
Ireland had a few chances of their own though and substitutes David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson in particular looked lively and dangerous when they came on. The home side pushed for an equaliser late on and Duffy had a very good chance to equalise at the death once again from a Brady set piece but the Derry native couldn’t find the net this time.
A performance like that against Finland won’t be enough to get the better of Slovakia in the crucial Euro 2021 play-off semi-final next month though.
Stephen Kenny after the game said:
These first two games have been very tight and the ability to take your chances is the critical difference. Slovakia is the big game and we need to increase our attacking options for that game.
Also, pretty much the entire Ireland squad is still in pre-season with their clubs so it will take some time still (probably three or four more games) before they get full match fitness.
While the Nations League looks like it can be effectively written off for Ireland at this stage, it also seems as if Stephen Kenny didn’t want to completely reveal his full hand with the huge play-off match to come against Slovakia on October 8th (and if successful in Bratislava Ireland will play Bosnia or Northern Ireland four days after that.)
Elsewhere in our Nations League Group B4, Wales won both of their opening two games. The fact that the Dragons won both of their opening games is bad news for Ireland. The winners of the group are likely to be guaranteed a playoff place at the end of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers (assuming that the winners of the Nations League group don’t also win their World Cup qualifying group, which is a likely scenario).
The Welsh are now in pole position to win Nations League Group B4 and ergo earn a place in the 2022 World Cup qualifying play-offs (should it be needed.)
For now though, Irish thoughts turn to Bratislava on October 8th. There is plenty of food for thought for Stephen Kenny and his backroom team over the next month.