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A dejected Adam Idah. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
sense of an ending

Ireland's qualifying dreams in ruins after Netherlands defeat

Ireland took an early lead but were beaten 2-1.

Republic of Ireland 1

Netherlands 2

IF THIS IS the end then it will be remembered as one of symbolism if not significance. 

Ireland’s hopes of qualifying from the group lie in ruins after defeat at home to the Dutch in a manner that might come to symbolise Stephen Kenny’s tenure: it began with promise and fizzed with energy but then dissipated sadly, Adam Idah’s third-minute penalty quickly levelled by one of Cody Gakpo’s and then wiped out by Wout Weghorst’s goal shortly after half-time. 

Ireland’s means of chasing the game summed up the tensions that will define Kenny’s tenure, those between his ambitions, the crowd’s desires, and the player’s quality. It was seen in one moment above all, as Ireland chased a late equaliser. 

Festy Ebosele won a corner and the fourth official flashed up the number five, with Ebosele ramping up the crowd. Ryan Manning took the corner and saw it skid off a Dutch head for a throw-in on the far side. Will Smallbone grabbed the ball, thought of taking a quick one, but was told to wait for Manning, who trotted across from the opposite side. The crowd groaned first in impatience and then in disbelief, as Manning wound up and then popped the ball backwards and Ireland then lost possession. 

In theory it made sense, put the ball backwards and then take a return pass to sling a left-footed cross into the box. But it was a classic of this tenure, and it was the withering of theory beneath the harsh lights of reality: Ireland’s careful planning and rigid patterns neither reacted to the situation and nor were they too simple to even be executed by the players on the field.  

There were a smattering of boos at the end, but this was in response to the context of the group rather than the Irish performance. Once again tonight you could construct a case as to what Ireland might achieve if only they had a bit more luck and a couple of fewer injuries and a bit more time but, ultimately, time is finite and it is running out fast. Perhaps it’s already out. 

Stephen Kenny’s name was met with indifference when it was read out to a three-quarters full ground, but once it filled up, the ground pulsed then shook and then blew out of its postcode when the roars went up after the last of the pre-game formalities. It was a visceral, teeth-shaking, blood-squirting roars; the kind of blast of unanimity that might melt steel beams. 

The Irish players let it seep through their skins and then unleashed themselves. Alan Browne, picked again tonight but returning to midfield, led the charge, pressing Mark Flekken’s first goal kick and instantly finding joy. The ball broke to Adam Idah in the box who laid the ball back to Chiedozie Ogbene, whose goal-bound shot was blocked by a flying Mats Wieffer. 

No matter. Ireland’s corner was flicked by Shane Duffy onto Virgil van Dijk’s dangling left arm, jutting too far out for the VAR to overturn the penalty decision. Adam Idah slammed the penalty into the bottom corner to trigger the eruption. 

adam-idah-celebrates-scoring-a-goal Adam Idah celebrates his opening goal. Evan Treacy / INPHO Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland were braver out of possession than in it, hurtling themselves at Dutch defenders, led by Browne and the truly tireless Jason Knight. Their pressing was relentless, with Flekken at one point forced to shank the ball over the right touchline, holding his arms up in stupefied apology. Ireland held their limitations keenly, knocking the ball long for Idah and Ogbene rather than try and play through the Dutch midfield. While Van Dijk and co largely ruled the skies, Ireland’s magnificent industry meant their midfielders had sprung forward, ready to win the second ball. 

But Ireland’s pushing high brought risks, and they were exposed after 19 minutes. A cross-field ball from Van Dijk was read by Doherty, but his intercepting header instead dropped right at the feet of Cody Gakpo. Ireland were torn out of shape: Gakpo and Denzel Dumfries spotted Shane Duffy lagging yards behind the Irish defensive line. Gakpo slid a divine pass through for Dumfries, who was cleaned out by Gavin Bazunu. Gakpo pushed through a wall of jeers and converted the spot kick. 

Ireland kept on fighting, and soon they were made to regret the absence of Evan Ferguson. Again Browne sprung forward to press a goal-kick, again the ball broke to Idah, again he laid it back to Ogbene…but this time the shot didn’t come first time. Instead he dallied and the chance was wasted. 

Ireland kept their essential insubordination. Idah chased but was beaten to a hopeful through ball by van Dijk, only to then rob him of the ball and have his jersey grabbed in the process. The referee, presumably deferring to Van Dijk’s reputation, blew for a free out. It was a travesty. 

Netherlands’ front three played narrow and tightly-together, and much of their inter-play was slick and dangerous, orchestrated by Gakpo’s fabulous spatial intelligence. Ireland’s high-press meant that their backline was often left three-v-three, which twice resulted in Donyell Malen – preferred to Wout Weghorst – sprinting clear. Twice Bazunu came to the rescue. 

Ronald Koeman decided he had enough of the chaos, junking his back three and reverting to a back four at the break, introducing Wout Weghorst, the kind of giant who might be summoned by gong to protect a terrified, besieged village. 

Koeman shifted to a 4-2-3-1 and it instantly gave the Dutch a grip of the game. Dumfries came alive from right-back, sent down the right with a switch of play and pulling the back to Simons on the penalty spot: only a brilliant challenge by Browne denied him. 

There was no escape a few minutes later. Again the ball was switched to Dumfries, and this time he headed the ball across goal to Weghorst, who belied his size in acrobatically hooking the ball in. There was no VAR repreive as, maddeningly, Duffy was the only man playing Dumfries on once again. 

Koeman’s half-time reshuffle totally changed the game, the wild democracy of the first-half brutally cracked down upon. Ireland, for the first rime in the game, were pinned back and chasing shadows. 

wout-weghorst-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-second-goal Weghorst celebrates the winning goal. Evan Treacy / INPHO Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

A failure to adapt in-game has been a legitimate criticism of Kenny and his coaching staff, but with their squad denuded by injury and painfully lacking in comparative quality, it was difficult to know what the correct response might be. The first response came on 64 minutes, with Ryan Manning brought in for James McClean and Chiedozie Ogbene swapping to the left wing, in place of Jason Knight, presumably to quell Dumfries’ forward runs. 

Ireland gained a bit more territory – perhaps given it by the Dutch – but created little. Next came the system change, Egan and Browne making way for Will Smallbone and Jamie McGrath in a swap to 4-2-3-1, news disseminated to the players by means of a note from the touchline. 

But Ireland just couldn’t create anything, their lack of midfield guile painfully evident. In the final minutes, Kenny truly rolled the final dice, bringing on Festy Ebosele (second cap) and Sinclair Armstrong (first cap.) 

Ireland subsisted on familiarly meagre fare: set-pieces. First Smallbone failed to clear the first man with a free-kick wide on the left, and then Manning’s corner-then-throw-in maddened the crowd, who demanded the ball be slung into the box as the Irish players shuffled it about, treating it like they were handling uranium. 

Tonight Ireland were dogged and spirited and ultimately not good enough. There’s no shame in that, but it is the night in Athens that will haunt Stephen Kenny forever more. 

A managerial tenure that has always felt just on the threshold of something big looks condemned to be forever pregnant, frustrated, and never scaling the heights of those who believe in it most. 

 

Republic of Ireland: Gavin Bazunu; Matt Doherty (Festy Ebosele, 87′); Nathan Collins, Shane Duffy (captain), John Egan (Jamie McGrath, 72′); James McClean (Ryan Manning, 64′); Josh Cullen, Alan Browne (Will Smallbone, 72′); Chiedozie Ogbene, Adam Idah, Jason Knight (Sinclair Armstrong, 87′)

Netherlands: Mark Flekken; Denzel Dumfries; Mathias de Ligt, Virgil van Dijk (captain), Nathan Ake; Daley Blind; Mats Wieffer (Tijani Reinders, HT), Frenkie de Jong; Xavi Simons, Donyell Malen (Teun Koopmeiners, 67′), Cody Gakpo (Noa Lang, 80′)

Referee: Irfan Peljto 

Attendance: 49,807

 

Written by Gavin Cooney and posted on the42.ie

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