Wednesday 11 December 2019

'We were relentless with that tactic' - Stephen Kenny hails his side's press as Elbouzedi relights visitors' fire

Euro u-21 qualifier, group 1: Armenia 0 Ireland 1

Ireland goalscorer Zachary Elbouzedi (left) celebrates with Adam Idah (centre) and the rest of his team-mates in Yerevan. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland goalscorer Zachary Elbouzedi (left) celebrates with Adam Idah (centre) and the rest of his team-mates in Yerevan. Photo: Sportsfile

John Fallon

In another empty venue on the other side of Europe, some of the new breed showed why the glory nights for Irish football at Lansdowne Road can return.

This was only a shadow of Stephen Kenny's first-choice U-21 team - six of the starters are eligible for the Euro 2023 qualifying campaign - but the verve with which they executed a difficult mission, points to a brighter future.

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Stephen Kenny celebrates with Gavin Bazunu. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Kenny celebrates with Gavin Bazunu. Photo: Sportsfile

The disparity in the teams' recent records was stark. Armenia came into the clash buoyed with their win over Luxembourg and scaring Italy. The top seeds were made to hang on for a 1-0 win at the same desolate Academy venue in Yerevan visited by Ireland yesterday.

After losing their unbeaten record in Iceland last month, the loss of eight first-choice players tested the depth in Stephen Kenny's squad. In total, he made eight changes but one of the mainstays delivered a man-of-the-match display and goal to leave Ireland four points clear at top of Group One.

Zack Elbouzedi, a home-based player currently without a club, was given clear instructions - to expose the opposition full-back.

Tough

Ireland's Jack Taylor shields the ball from Armenia's Nazaryan Hovhannes. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Jack Taylor shields the ball from Armenia's Nazaryan Hovhannes. Photo: Sportsfile

Gavin Kilkenny's position on the opposite right flank was more of an inside forward, leaving Elbouzedi as only Irish player hugging the touchline. It made for a tough afternoon for Hrachya Geghamy.

"We'd noticed from videos of Armenia's previous games that we could get at their full-back," said the winger, who is attracting interest from Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk. "I had got the better of him in the early exchanges and knew I'd get some chances."

Before he eventually scored the winner on 62 minutes, the Malahide man had tested Sevak Aslanyan with a rasping effort on the stroke of half-time which the goalkeeper turned away for a corner.

Nathan Collins and Jason Knight also wasted chances in a dominant first-half display, the latter sending his low shot narrowly wide when sent clear by Elbouzedi's header.

Armenia struggled to get out of their own half, making 17-year-old debutant Gavin Bazunu a bystander in the Ireland goal.

"Armenia had picked up some good results in the campaign but weren't used to being pressed like that," Kenny pointed out. "We were relentless with that tactic and it caused them problems."

More chances came and went for Ireland in the second half. The hosts got lucky when Elbouzedi allowed Geghamy time to clear from one chance but the right-back was nowhere to be seen for the winner.Knight broke down an Armenia move and swiftly released Adam Idah down the right.

His low cross was dummied by Connor Ronan into the path of the unmarked Elbouzedi. With Geghamy attracted to the ball, the defender couldn't prevent Ireland's match-winner guiding the ball over Sevak Aslanyan for the solitary goal.

"I didn't need to shout to Connor to leave it because he knew I was in space," revealed Elbouzedi.

Dara O'Shea had to do his country some service by preventing Karen Melkonyan racing clear to equalise with 15 minutes left. His blemish was punished with a red card and suspension for Tuesday's visit of second seeds Sweden to Tallaght.

At least Kenny knows he's plenty of personnel options for their second last home game of the campaign.

IRELAND - G Bazunu (Manchester City); D McNamara (Newport County), D O'Shea (West Bromwich Albion), N Collins (Stoke City), T O'Connor (Gillingham); J Knight (Derby County), C Coventry (West Ham United); Z Elbouzedi (Waterford), C Ronan (DAC Dunajská Streda), Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth); A Idah (Norwich City). Subs: L Scales (UCD) for Ronan (77 mins), J Taylor (Brentford) for Kilkenny (81 mins), A Keena (Hearts) for Idah (86).

Ref - Antti Munukka (FIN)

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