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Lack of goals hurting us

Progress under Kenny but we draw a blank


Slovakia’s Juraj Kucka in action with Republic of Ireland’s James McClean

Slovakia’s Juraj Kucka in action with Republic of Ireland’s James McClean

Slovakia’s Juraj Kucka in action with Republic of Ireland’s James McClean

Risk and reward, they don't always match up, no matter how strong the desire is.

And that was the case for Stephen Kenny's Ireland side in Slovakia last night. That European dream, the vision of seeing the Republic of Ireland play in a major finals on Irish soil next year is over.

The improvement on the woes of Ireland's senior team over the last four years was there to be seen as Ireland deserved more than the heartache of defeat in a penalty shootout.

This had shades of Paris in 2009: attacking verve, energy, brio, some good play... but with the outcome of a moral victory.

There was lots to be encouraged about from the 120 minutes of open play. We know that an Irish side can pass the ball, can mount attacks, can play with a bit of swagger.

But we also know that the key element to winning a game, the basic act of putting the ball in the net, is still missing. One goal from three games under Kenny is an extension of the goal-free woes from the previous spells of grey-tinged misery.

It's the end of the road to Euro 2020, not the end for this side as they have to pick themselves up to play Wales in Dublin on Sunday and Finland in Helsinki next Wednesday. Lifting spirits will be hard.

It could be said that some of Kenny's players came of age in Bratislava last night. Alan Browne was one of Ireland's best midfielders, despite starting off the bench, the Callums (Robinson and O'Dowda) can learn and go on to better things.

But it can also be a comfort and an annoyance that two of Ireland's best players on the night, Darren Randolph and David McGoldrick, will be well into their 30s when the next major finals comes around.

Ireland have always had fight and anger in the side, and they added some purpose to that later on. It was significant that Slovakia's manager could be heard shouting "you have to be more aggressive".

Aggression is usually the calling card of Ireland so we have moved on a level and may now have more respect from opposing sides now.

But once the Irish side draw a blank in front of goal, especially away from home where the drought is most evident, they will not get to major finals and the hope has to be that the team will learn, will improve, will find the missing part of the puzzle.

Far too often, Ireland teams treated possession of the ball like a curse, something to be flung away as urgently as possible.

Last night we saw what has been lacking for a long time, a midfield player or a full back taking a step back and a look around, having a think about what to do with the ball instead of lumping it 50 yards up the field.

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Previously the approach from an Ireland side has been to simply assume that the opposition would have more possession, with the game-plan based around dealing with that irrefutable fact. In Bratislava they tried to caress the ball, not strangle it.

There was a sign of that as early as the 13th minute when Jeff Hendrick, playing his best for Ireland in some time, pulled off a move to set up Robinson and won a corner. The corner went unconverted but the point was made.

The approach work from Ireland was good, better than in recent times. But it was that final ball, the crucial moment, which was lacking.

Half an hour into the game there was more of the good stuff from the side in all-white, impressive work by James McClean and a cross in for McGoldrick but the final effort was weak.

The concern for Kenny's side popped up in the last few minutes of the first half, Slovakia finding their rhythm in an empty stadium, leading to one of the moments of the game, a chance for Ondrej Duda and a save from Randolph.

As the game dragged on, Ireland looked less and less like scoring a goal and things had to change, but one major change was forced on Kenny as McCarthy suffered an injury and had to be replaced by Alan Browne.

McCarthy had been doing a lot of the covering work in midfield but as he limped off, it fell to Hourihane to fill in, the hope being that some space could free up for Brady.

It was fellow sub Browne who had Ireland's first chance, the first of his two shots on target saved by Marek Rodak on 70 minutes.

From then on it was anyone's game, chances for both sides.

Familiarity with each other and tiredness opened things up even more in added time: McGoldrick had a go, so did Haraslin, Vavro cleared off the line and the closest of all, Browne's shot off the post.

Normal time and extra time could not separate two ordinary sides and it's a pity that Browne had to take on the mantle of The One Who Missed, Matt Doherty's missed kick the coup de grace.

Exiting with the heads held high, this was more of the moral victories we had come to hate. We can only hope for better days.