New heroes shine in green but Latvian goals will lift French hearts

Ireland 3, Latvia 2

Ireland goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher concedes his side's second goal. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Aidan Fitzmaurice

Some new heroes in the new green jersey but the same old failings at the back for Stephen Kenny and a narrow win at home to Latvia which leaves more questions unanswered than problems solved ahead of the visit to Dublin of France on Monday.

Latvia came to Dublin not quite as cannon fodder but they were expected to provide a mere stage for the arrival of Evan Ferguson. The teenager did deliver the required chapter in the story, a goal on his first senior start, and debutant Will Smallbone also impressed with a display of confident, attacking football.

And another new cap in the form of Mikey Johnston also made a mark, with an assist – of sorts – for the 63rd minute winner from Chiedozie Ogbene. Ferguson soaked up all the attention and deserves the adulation but Smallbone’s debut outing, and Johnston’s exciting cameo off the bench, cannot be overlooked as Irish football hopes it has found a home-grown striker in the mould of Frank Stapleton, Niall Quinn and Robbie Keane.

​The win is a relief but the manner in which Ireland allowed a 2-0 lead to slip away, before it was rescued by the Irish subs, will be of huge concern. It’s become a routine now for average international sides (like Azerbaijan, Luxembourg) to score world-class goals against Ireland.

So the prospect of a world-class attack, so strong that France can start with Olivier Giroud on the bench, strikes a huge note of caution to dampen the Ferguson-mania.

And yet it had all started so well for Kenny’s side, that 2-0 lead with just 17 minutes gone to ease any nerves with a dominant opening spell which would have given Didier Deschamps’ scouts some food for thought.

The Irish crowd had wanted a first international goal from Ferguson but it was a 25-cap veteran who claimed his maiden goal, Callum O’Dowda getting his head to an excellent cross from Smallbone, only O’Dowda’s second goal in six months.

Credit must go to Jayson Molumby for his role in setting up the move with a tackle won in midfield.

Ferguson had played a role in the first goal and he claimed the second, again with some clever build-up play from Molumby and Smallbone, a cross from Matt Doherty which the Latvian ’keeper saved. The alert Michael Obafemi was in a good position to profit from the rebound as he tapped a short pass to Ferguson and he powered the ball into the net.

Ireland were well and truly in control, a rare case of a 2-0 lead at home so early in a game but there was a warning sign of slack play when Alan Browne lost the ball in a dangerous area, to Roberts Uldrikis, on 26 minutes though the Latvians were unable to make anything of it.

They did profit from Ireland’s mistake though, Doherty far too casual with the ball on 33 minutes and the Dutch-based Uldrikis spotted his chance to score, from distance, his seventh international goal, a superb strike by the 24-year-old. Out of sight after 17 minutes, Latvia were level at the break thanks to a scrappy equaliser from Artūrs Zjuzins. Janis Ikaunieks floated in a free kick, Ireland wasted two opportunities to deal with it and Zjuzins managed to beat Kelleher with his half-volley, helped by a deflection off Nathan Collins.

Latvia looked bright after the restart, Uldrikis forcing a save from Kelleher as nerves seemed to sap the Irish side. A triple substitution on 63 minutes swung it for Kenny. A tackle by sub John Egan won the ball which Johnston took on, he barged forward and while his shot came off the post, Ogbene was on hand to take the present gifted to him by a terrible attempt at a clearance from Vladislavs Sorokins.

The home side had switched formation, subs Johnston and Ogbene alongside Ferguson in a three-man attack which wanted to force more from a suspect Latvian ’keeper who was not tested as much as he should have been.

Troy Parrott, whose injury-time goal off the bench earned Ireland a 1-0 win over Lithuania 12 months earlier, came on for Ferguson who got a standing ovation from a Dublin crowd who knew they had seen a moment in history with his debut, but Parrott could not repeat that feat against this latest Baltic opposition, while Kenny also gave game-time to James McClean, a player now just three short of the 100-cap mark.

The crowd’s reaction to Smallbone’s exit, when he was replaced by Jeff Hendrick on 80 minutes, was not as loud as that afforded to Ferguson but make no mistake, the Stoke City player had taken on the role of a senior player with ease and should be an option, off the bench if not in the team, for the France game. Johnston offered another threat on 84 minutes, a move from the left, a swift charge into the box and a run past three defenders which led to a corner, no goal but impressive stuff from the Celtic man who is on loan in Portugal.

IRELAND: Kelleher (Liverpool); O’Shea (WBA), Collins (Wolves), Omobamidele (Norwich); Doherty (Atletico Madrid, cap), Molumby (WBA), Browne (Preston), O’Dowda (Cardiff); Smallbone (Stoke), Obafemi (Burnley); Ferguson (Brighton). Subs: Egan (Sheffield U) for Omobamidele, 63; Ogbene (Rotherham) for Doherty, 63; Johnston (Vitoria) for Obafemi, 63; Parrott (Preston) for Ferguson, 73; McClean (Wigan) for O’Dowda, 77; Hendrick (Reading) for Smallbone, 81).

LATVIA: Steinbors (RFS); Sorokins (RFS), Cernomordijs (Riga, cap), Balodis (Valmiera), Savajnieks (RFS); Ciganiks (Widzew), Tobers (Lechia Gdansk), Zjuzins (RFS), Ikaunieks (RFS); Uldrikis (Cambuur), Gutkovskis (Rakow). Subs: Oss (RFS) for Balodis, 46; Krollis (Spezia) for Gutkovskis, 55; Jaunzems (Valmiera) for Ikaunieks, 65; Saveļjevs (Auda) for Cigaņiks, 70; Saveļjevs (Auda) for Zjuzins, 70; D Ikaunieks (Jablonec) for Uldriķis, 80.

REFEREE: A Chivulete (Romania).