Ireland's Euros dream over in shoot-out defeat to Slovakia

Matt Doherty and Alan Browne missed their penalties at the end of a goalless draw in Bratislava.

Callum Robinson.
Callum Robinson.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Slovakia 0

Republic of Ireland 0 

Slovakia win 4-2 on penalties

MATT DOHERTY LOOKED to the ground as the crossbar rang remorselessly around an empty stadium in an eerie, vacant rattle to finally sound the death knell for Ireland’s years-long quest to qualify for Euro 2020. 

This seemingly endless journey has finally met its end. 

Doherty and Alan Browne missed their penalties in the shootout, either side of a bad Slovak panenka that left Darren Randolph grasping agonisingly at air. It was Ireland’s first shootout since the 2002 World Cup and it confirms they won’t be going t0 the next European Championships, cruelly coming at the end of their most heartening, ambitious performance in their two-year quest for qualification. 

It’s tempting to wonder what might have been achieved had Kenny succeeded Martin O’Neill, and he didn’t have to wait until now under one of John Delaney’s final hare-brained compromises. 

For if there are ways to lose then let this be it: Ireland were brave in all the right ways as they slowly gained eminence across 120 minutes through their passing and their movement alone. Twice Ireland saw the ball cleared off the line while Alan Browne hit a post during what proved to be a goalless 120 minutes. 

With yesterday’s positive test for defender Milan Skriniar following a week-long, thwarted effort to extricate Stanislav Lobotka from quarantine at Napoli, Slovakia’s brush with Covid was dramatic, while Ireland’s was delayed. 

An FAI staff member tested positive for the virus ahead of the game, with the news announced less than 45 minutes before kick-off. Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah did half-a-Ronaldo by disappearing from the official teamsheets published less than an hour earlier, with no official reason given for their absence. 

Connolly’s absence meant a surprise restoration to the starting line-up for James McClean, who showed his worth 90 seconds in. In scenes bracingly redolent of the opening two games under Kenny, Ireland were caught shockingly open, with a backtracking McClean doing superbly to deny Slovakia a one-on-one with Randolph.

Ireland settled from there and were patient in possession, hogging the ball as Kenny intended. A lengthy spell of possession flowed from one side of the pitch through McCarthy until Doherty flighted a gorgeous cross to Conor Hourihane at the back post, whose elegant touch to McClean was followed by a scruffy shot that was blocked by Peter Pekarik. 

Earlier, Ireland had been denied a penalty after a brief VAR check for potential handball, although the maverick Slovak television director suspiciously decided there was no need to show it to us.

Ireland were not panicked on the ball but neither were they penetrative. With McGoldrick dropping off, Ireland lacked the pace and arced runs in behind Connolly would have offered. And while Ireland remained comfortable through vast swathes of the first half, they still looked alarmingly suspect in transition. An Irish corner in first-half stoppage time ended with three Slovakia players streaking clear, faced with only John Egan and the backtracking Jeff Hendrick, with Duda forcing a fabulous low save from Darren Randolph. 

The subsequent corner saw Duda flash an overhead kick wide of Randolph’s right-hand post. 

The same post was grazed in comic circumstances in the early stages in the second half, as a Conor Hourihane free-kick pinball off the turf and Marek Hamsik’s head to come perilously close to giving Ireland the lead. 

Ireland lost James McCarthy to injury on the hour mark but had lost their foothold in the game earlier, ceding ground and dealing admirably with a series of Hamsik’s corner.

This did give Ireland the chance to play on the counter, and almost did so to profit when Stevens superbly picked out substitute Alan Browne, whose near-post shot was pawed away by Marek Rodak. That Browne was so far forward was a result of Kenny flipping his system, with the Preston midfielder pushing on as a No.10 in support of McGoldrick and Hendrick and Hourihane dropping deep.

The system seemed to suit Ireland more, and their passing grew crisp and penetrative, largely stable without the ball and certain with it. 

Although Matt Doherty grew as an attacking influence after Kenny’s switch, he was exposed defensively by a angled pass by Hamsik to Lukáš Haraslín. His touch, swivel and shot beat Randolph but was blocked off the line by a retreated and splayed Shane Duffy. 

As if to emphasise how evenly matched these sides were, Slovakia met that goal line clearance with one of their own. 

David McGoldrick jinked and weaved through the Slovak defence, poked the ball through for Robinson who smartly popped the ball to his right for Browne, who in term deftly squared to Hourihane, who saw a tame effort from point-blank range blocked on the line by Kucka. 

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conor-hourihane Hourihane reacts to his missed chance. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It was a glorious chance, beautifully carved, with Hourihane’s soft effort perhaps explained by the fact he had to take it on his weaker right foot. 

Only one side turned up for extra time, as Kenny’s Ireland delivered the kind of performance that was brave in all the ways with which we are unfamiliar. They were assured on the ball without ever seeking to pass laterally; the forwards interchanging in a whirr of movement and sharp passes. 

It all revolved around the pivot of McGoldrick’s velvet touch. He saw a snapshot deflected and fly narrowly over Rodak’s bar, with Browne seeing his header from the subsequent corner hacked off the line. 

Browne then came closer a minute before the break in extra time, butting the ball off the post from close range after some dagger-swift interchange involving Brady and Callum O’Dowda. 

The second half of extra-time was interrupted by fatigue and substitutions, with Ireland coming closest with Robbie Brady rattling the side-netting with a whipped free-kick. 

Ultimately, the game was settled from 12 yards. Ireland will take much from this game, except for the one thing they came for.

Slovakia: Marek Rodak; Peter Pekarik, Denis Vavro (Norbert Gyömber, 112′), Martin Valjent, Róbert Mazáň; Juraj Kucka (Ján Greguš, 85′) Patrik Hrošovský, Marek Hamsik (captain); Albert Rusnák (Róbert Mak, 85′), Ondrej Duda (Róbert, 107′), Jaroslav Mihalík (Lukáš Haraslín, 73′)

Republic of Ireland: Darren Randolph; Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy (captain), John Egan, Enda Stevens; James McCarthy (Alan Browne 60′), Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick; Callum Robinson (Callum O’Dowda, 99′), David McGoldrick (Shane Long, 111′), James McClean (Robbie Brady, 60′)

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Gavin Cooney

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