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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 25 April, 2019

Toothless Ireland fail to register a single shot on target and more talking points from the Turkey loss

The more things change, the more they stay the same for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland side.

1. Assured debut for Declan Rice

Declan Rice and David Meyler dejected Ireland's Declan Rice and David Meyler pictured after the game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IF WE LEARNED one thing based on tonight’s drab match, in which an uninspired Ireland were beaten 1-0 by Turkey in Antalya, it was that Declan Rice at 19 is already more than capable of playing international football.

It was perhaps no surprise, given how assured the youngster has looked for West Ham this season.

After making his Premier League debut at the end of last year’s campaign, Rice has been a regular in the Hammers’ match-day squad ever since.

It has been a breakthrough 12 months for the man who was recently named Ireland’s U19 Player of the Year.

The London-born starlet has appeared 23 times in all competitions for West Ham this season, including seven top-flight starts.

He also looks equally comfortable playing in midfield and defence, only moving to the latter position at U18 level.

And few could complain when Rice came away from tonight’s Turkey friendly with the man-of-the-match award.

Of all the Irish players on show, he was the only one who emerged with his reputation enhanced.

Unlike many of the away side’s players, he invariably looked comfortable in possession and was frequently willing to show for the ball.

In defence, he looked solid, before giving the Irish midfield a greater sense of energy and purpose in the second half.

Given that he only turned 19 in January, it is scary to think what he could achieve between now and the end of his career, provided Rice retains the impeccable sense of professionalism he has shown thus far.

2. The more things change, the more they stay the same

Martin O'Neill during the national anthem Ireland Manager Martin O'Neill during the national anthem. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With the exception of first-team regulars Shane Duffy, James McClean, Jeff Hendrick and the returning Seamus Coleman, the Ireland side this evening was unrecognisable to the teams that took to the field during most of the World Cup qualifiers.

Yet while Friday’s fixture lacked the intensity of those games, was it otherwise much different to the 1-1 draw with Georgia in Tbilisi, the 0-0 stalemate agaunst Denmark in Copenhagen or the abundance of forgettable away trips from down through the years?

It may have been a friendly in name, and for that reason, it would be unfair to read too much into the display or be heavily critical of a team comprising mainly of inexperienced internationals.

But what was most discouraging is how starkly it resembled a typical competitive Ireland match in one sense — with the exception of Rice, the players looked so inhibited and unwilling to take risks that they might as well have been playing in the World Cup final.

There was plenty of endeavour and defensive discipline, but little in the way of inspiration.

Jeff Hendrick’s defence-splitting ball to send Scott Hogan through on goal in the first half was the one glimpse of quality, but aside from that, the composed performance of Rice and the fact that players such as Alan Judge and Kevin Long got some much-needed minutes under their belt, there were few positives from an Irish perspective in Antalya this evening.

3. Ireland’s attack still looks toothless

Scott Hogan dejected after his side conceded a goal Ireland's Scott Hogan dejected after his side concede a goal. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There was a swell of optimism when many people saw the Ireland team-sheet in Turkey this evening.

Aston Villa’s Scott Hogan was handed a debut, while in-form Preston attacker Sean Maguire got his first start.

However, both players struggled to make an impact, and it was hard not to feel sorry for them.

There was simply no cohesion to Ireland’s play. The Boys in Green were dominated in midfield and reduced to hopeful long balls for much of the evening.

With two strikers who are not renowned for their physical attributes up front, it was no surprise that both were largely anonymous during their time on the pitch.

Hogan wasted one glorious opportunity in the first half, finding the side-netting after taking the ball around the goalkeeper, but it was an anomaly in terms of the game, with chances few and far between for both sides.

Ireland had 37% possession and just five shots in 90 minutes, none of which hit the target (as per the BBC’s stats).

What’s most worrying is that regardless of the personnel O’Neill opts for, the results have been consistently similar.

In their World Cup qualifying group, only Georgia and Moldova registered fewer goals than the Republic.

In six matches against the other best-performing teams in Group D (Wales, Serbia and Austria), there was just a single occasion where the Boys in Green managed more than one goal (the 2-2 draw with Serbia back in September 2016). Similarly, O’Neill’s men could only find the net once over 180 minutes in two legs against Denmark in the play-offs.

On the plus side, with the exception of the Denmark second leg, Ireland’s defensive record has consistently been one of the best in Europe during the Martin O’Neill era — only five teams (Portugal, Germany, England, Spain and Croatia) had a superior record at the back during the Uefa group-stage qualifiers for Russia.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that in order for the team to make significant progress, there must be greater potency in their attack, with the onus on the entire side to link-up play rather than simply expecting the hapless attackers to score out of nothing. Unfortunately, tonight’s friendly, against an ordinary enough Turkey outfit that finished fourth in their World Cup qualification group, had little to suggest that O’Neill is any closer to solving this continual problem.

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Paul Fennessy

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