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Clark header sees Ireland's Euro 2016 hopefuls dig out Swiss win

Good Friday for the Boys in Green in the first of their Euro 2016 warm-ups.

Ireland players celebrate Ciaran Clark's goal Home comforts: Clark header extends Ireland's unbeaten record in Dublin. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Ireland 1

Switzerland 0

— Niall Kelly reports from the Aviva Stadium

THIS WASN’T EVEN much of a game for the neutrals, people wryly observed, but Ciaran Clark’s early header was enough to ensure that Ireland got their Euro 2016 preparations off to a winning start.

The easy atmosphere was a million miles away from the high-stakes tension of November’s playoff win over Bosnia, no doubt lubricated by the fact that the Aviva Stadium was one of the few places where people could dodge the Good Friday alcohol ban.

It was the perfect complement to the languid football on offer, barely punctuated by drama after Clark flicked home the game’s only goal with less than two minutes on the clock.

Martin O’Neill handed out three debuts over the course of an experimental evening, and it’s safe to assume that a lot of the names on show won’t feature in his starting XI in the Stade de France in 80 days’ time.

With just 23 seats on the plane and spaces rapidly filling, this was always going to be a night when individual performances would be scrutinised more closely than any real team cohesion.

In that respect, Shane Duffy was a clear winner with a man of the match performance on only his second senior start while Clark looked every bit as assured alongside him at the heart of the Irish defence. A glimpse of the future perhaps, in the medium-term if not even sooner than that.

Shane Duffy Shane Duffy was Ireland's best performer on the night. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Alan Judge was rewarded for his stellar club form with a first cap, though he was asked to play out wide rather than in his preferred playmaking role behind the striker, while new boys Eunan O’Kane and Johnny Hayes were also introduced from the bench in the second half.

Cruelly, as it often does, fate saved its nastiest hand for one of those with the most to prove. At 32, this summer might well have been Kevin Doyle’s last chance to represent his country at a major tournament, but his night was cut short by a leg injury which saw him stretchered off in visible discomfort after just 27 minutes. There was no immediate prognosis but the initial signs looked ominous.

With a large proportion of their first-teamers absent, Ireland’s play was disjointed at times and it was no real surprise that the goal came from a set piece.

The last time Robbie Brady was here, he bemoaned the inconsistency of his deliveries against Bosnia, though he eventually found one killer blow that night. Tonight it took him less than two minutes to find his mark.

Duffy got up highest, outjumping Norwich man Timm Klose, and when he headed the ball goalwards, Clark stole in to nod it on past Yann Sommer from two yards out.

Duffy has stood out one of Ireland’s outstanding performers at club level for Blackburn, and he carried that form on his return to the national side. Both he and Clark were kept busy by Switzerland’s highly-rated teen Breel Embolo and Blerim Dzemaili, but solid organisation and clever reading of the game snuffed out the most serious threats as they were materialising.

It led to a relatively quiet night for Darren Randolph, who remains in pole position to be Ireland’s number one this summer, though he is set to watch from the sidelines as Rob Elliot auditions against Slovakia on Tuesday night.

Randolph was able to watch in the ninth minute as Haris Seferovic blazed high and wide under little pressure, and again a few minutes later when the same man outjumped Clark but looped his header harmlessly over the bar.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the 34th minute that he was called upon for his first real save, Granit Xhaka’s shot taking a big deflection off Seferovic but not altering course by enough to deceive the West Ham stopper.

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Kevin Doyle down injured Doyle was stretchered off midway through the first half. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland did have chances to double their advantage in the first half, and before he was stretchered off, Doyle nearly flicked a near-post corner past Sommer.

His recall to the starting XI — a first international cap since October 2014 — was unexpected but his tireless workrate made him an asset worth considering for O’Neill. That industry allowed him to link well with Long early on, and indeed it was his undoing as he came off the worse in a 50/50 clash with Klose and departed with his head in his hands to be replaced by Darryl Murphy.

Long was desperately unlucky not to score in the 37th minute. Seamus Coleman was turned loose by a quick free and when he stood up a cross, Long powered a header off the underside of the bar with Sommer rooted to the spot.

And then Judge had half a chance to mark his debut with a goal, but he appeared to lose concentration for a split-second and couldn’t steer his free header on target.

Clear-cut chances were few and far between for both sides in a pedestrian second half. Ireland sat off the Swiss and allowed them to monopolise possession, confident that they could thwart the attacking forays.

Dzemaili nearly picked the lock with a neat through ball on 55 minutes, but Clark was smartly across to deny Embolo. Dzemaili then had a chance of his own but didn’t connect cleanly enough with his header to really test Randolph.

O’Neill emptied his bench with O’Kane and Hayes making their bows, while James McCarthy, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean also got a chance to stretch their legs.

The resolute Irish concentration almost cracked seven minutes from time but after some haphazard defence, substitute Shani Tarashaj’s shot deflected off Clark and then Embolo before trickling wide.

O’Kane could have sealed matters in stoppage time when he pounced on a loose pass from Gelson Fernandes. The Bournemouth man tried to pick his spot but his curling shot was inches wide of Sommer’s post.

A new cast will likely get their chance on Tuesday night but for Duffy and Clark especially, this was very clearly an opportunity taken.

IRELAND: Randolph, Coleman, Duffy, Clark, Brady, Quinn (McCarthy 61), Meyler (O’Kane 61), Judge, McGeady (Hayes 61), Long (McClean 84), Doyle (Murphy 27, Hoolahan 79).

SWITZERLAND: Sommer, Lang (Widmer 82), Schar, Klose, Rodriguez (Moubandje 78), Dzemaili (Tarashaj 71), Xhaka, Behrami (Fernandes 72), Mehmedi (Kasami 71), Embolo, Seferovic (Steffan 62).

Referee: Miroslav Zelinka (CZE)

Attendance: 35,450

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Big blow to Kevin Doyle’s Euro 2016 hopes as he’s stretchered off

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Niall Kelly

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