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Another Nations League loss for Ireland as much-changed Ukraine leave Dublin with a win

Ireland 0 Ukraine 1


Ukraine's Oleksandr Zubkov shoots at goal. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Ukraine's Oleksandr Zubkov shoots at goal. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Ukraine's Oleksandr Zubkov shoots at goal. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

THIS was an alarmingly poor showing from Ireland in the circumstances, a flat reaction to a bitter disappointment that will make the rest of this week pretty uncomfortable for Stephen Kenny.

A section of Ireland fans behind the goal did chant his name in the dying stages here, but back to back defeats in the Nations League have put a shuddering halt to the momentum that was building behind this group and there was local unease at the final whistle as the victorious guests naturally savoured a sweet moment with their support on what was an emotional night from their perspective.

Irish minds were caught up in the comparatively trivial frustrations of football.

There will be what ifs hanging over from this loss at the hands of a second string Ukraine side, yet similar to Armenia, the outcome here was hardly a product of misfortune.

Rather, Ireland were tired and lacked cohesion and composure at key moments. There was a stark absence of quality in the final third too, but after ten days together, it’s reasonable to expect greater levels of innovation going forward to compensate for certain inadequacies and match sharpness issues.

The introduction of options off the bench brought some level of improvement in the final quarter with Shane Duffy and Jason Knight close to levelling things up. However, this was pretty dispiriting stuff overall and Kenny’s ambitions to use this competition as a ticket to a better place are on seriously shaky ground.

Saturday’s derby with Scotland carries serious weight now, especially as facing a stronger Ukrainian side in Poland next Tuesday will be the toughest fixture of this quadruple header.

“We’ve made life hard for ourselves,” said Kenny, who acknowledged that his team’s display was patchy.

This encounter fell in line with previous Ireland games under the manager at the Aviva, with a purposeful start full of intent failing to yield a return and the visitors gradually settling to find that this venue couldn’t really be described as a ‘tough place to go.’

It’s worth noting that Ireland’s last competitive success in Ballsbridge was against Gibraltar in June 2019. With only two changes to the starting side from Saturday – Cyrus Christie in for the injured Séamus Coleman and Jason Knight preferred to Troy Parrott – Kenny was prepared to allow his Yerevan selection redeem themselves.

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Knight was important in the early stages, though, lifting the crowd with a purposeful run and a shot in the opening minutes.

Ireland’s back three pushed up into the Ukrainian half to try and squeeze their guests and the in-running view at that point was that green shirts were going to make life very difficult for a team which had made ten changes from Sunday’s agonising playoff defeat to Wales.

That feeling subsided as Ireland lost their momentum. Ukraine began to play out reasonably comfortably and gaps started to appear.

In an ideal world in this system, the Irish front three would peg back their guests but Ukrainian confidence grew, happy to trust their ability to cope with a break so they began to impose and exploit space. Irish midfielders Josh Cullen and Jeff Hendrick were pushed deeper back to create an even bigger hole and with Callum Robinson toiling again and Chiedozie Ogbene struggling with the ball at his feet, the pendulum swung.

The one moment of hope was when Hendrick did advance into a central position to thread a pass for Robinson which led to a penalty shout that was waved away by the Slovakian match officials. It was a rare moment of incision.

There were signs of sluggishness too, communication failings and sloppy touches. Seven of Ukraine’s starters play in their league, and have been in a lengthy training camp to prepare for this session, but they’ve hardly played any football this year and yet their execution of the basics improved as Ireland’s regressed.

“I decided to field young players who deserved first hand experience of big games,” said Ukraine coach Oleksandr Petrakov.

They learned fast.

A string of shots from distance served as a warning for Ireland, with VAR coming to the rescue when Taras Kacharaba shoved Knight aside to fire in a left footer from distance. The dangerous Mykhailo Mudryk was offside in the lead-up, much to the relief of the locals. Ireland desperately needed the whistle.

Knight’s shot at Real Madrid back-up Andriy Lunin from the restart was a false dawn. Ukraine were ahead from their first advance, with John Egan needlessly giving away a free near the touchline that half-time sub Viktor Tsygankov, a starter in Cardiff, delivered with pace with Kelleher deceived by the lack of a touch and suffering a keeper’s nightmare when realising his position was such that he couldn’t keep the ball out.

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The atmosphere in the stadium was flat enough already, and it further punctured by the setback. There was little to stir the senses in the Irish response and the first change was enforced when Egan limped off to be replaced by Dara O'Shea on the hour mark.

Certainly, there was a case for more assertive action with no real penetration in the Irish play. Eventually, Kenny went for a triple sub on 69 minutes, introducing Michael Obafemi, James McClean and Alan Browne for Robinson, Enda Stevens and Christie and CJ Hamilton followed for an Irish debut in place for Ogbene.

The injection added a bit of impetus for the final quarter and Ukraine were belatedly turned in the other direction. Familiar routes threatened in the final third, with Duffy’s header forcing a stop from Andriy Lunin who did well to push it onto the crossbar. Obafemi was a threat in behind, in contrast to Robinson, and played his part in a late rally. He was one of the few positives to emerge from this exercise. But while Ireland had their moments, it was hardly a siege. Kenny may have to endure something uncomfortably close to that in the aftermath.

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