Football/Soccer

Republic facing World Cup mission impossible after Azerbaijan draw

Shane Duffy celebrates after heading Home the Republic of Ireland's late leveller against Azerbaijan at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran at the Aviva Stadium

2022 Fifa World Cup Qualifying Group A: Republic of Ireland 1 Azerbaijan 1

A SECOND home hangover after acts of near-heroism on the road saw the Republic of Ireland’s already threadbare World Cup qualification chances edge another gloomy step closer to mission impossible following Saturday’s disappointing draw with Azerbaijan.

It is an all too familiar story for Stephen Kenny’s side – one step forward, two steps back.

And just as Ireland’s pockets were picked by Luxembourg days after pushing Serbia all the way in the campaign opener back in March, so the Azeris delivered another hammer blow to any hopes that still lingered, killing any feel-good factor that followed a battling performance in defeat to Portugal.

This time around, it was the Republic hoping for some Ronaldo-type inspiration after Shane Duffy’s 87th minute header levelled up the Emin Makhmudov strike that put Azerbaijan ahead right on the stroke of half-time.

But it wasn’t to be - and, in truth, the Irish had only themselves to blame.

Too passive after a bright start, too sloppy as half-time approached and far too reliant on the towering centre-half partnership of Duffy and John Egan to get the goals that continue to elude everybody else.

Any goodwill garnered in Portugal drifted into the evening air as a smattering of boos greeted the final whistle, the bare figures doing little to help Kenny’s cause - one point from a possible 12 in this campaign, one win in 15 since he took over, none of them in a competitive outing, fourth out of five in Group A.

Table-toppers Serbia, fresh from their 4-1 hammering of Luxembourg, come to town tomorrow night in the latest must, must-win encounter. Expectations have seldom sunk so low.

And yet Saturday’s game had got under way against a backdrop of cautious optimism.

With a crowd of 25,000 allowed into the Aviva Stadium for the first time in 18 months, the streets that surround it hummed to a familiar beat as green jerseys of every vintage patrolled the footpaths.

The familiar ringing of the bell from the south terrace brought cheers 25 minutes before kick-off, ‘Come on You Boys in Green’ and ‘Put Em Under Pressure’ as the clock ticked stoking the fire a bit further. Cheers greeted Kenny’s name when it was announced after the team.

Having been cruelly deprived of home support since taking over the reins from Mick McCarthy, maybe – just maybe – feeling that bit of love could inspire his young side?

Coming into a home game against Azerbaijan with a back five left plenty scratching their heads, but the early signs were good.

Josh Cullen picked up where he left off in Portugal, controlling the midfield, with Matt Doherty and Aaron Connolly both spurning chances in the opening six minutes before Seamus Coleman saw a shot drift just outside the post.

After that, another near miss from Jayson Molumby aside, Ireland fell flat and the Aviva fell silent. Three times leading up to the break Irish players gave the ball back to their opponents and, on the stroke of half-time they paid the price when Cullen and Coleman stood off Makhmudov, allowing the Azeri playmaker to arrow his shot beyond Gavin Bazunu’s despairing dive.

The introduction of Daryl Horgan, and eventually Callum Robinson, offered some much-needed dynamism, but the desperate inability to find the net stalks this side. Adam Idah ran all day but passed up glorious headed opportunities in either half.

The first supporters started making for the exit around the 75 minutes, missing Duffy’s equaliser as the Derry man crashed home Cullen’s inviting cross. But they didn’t miss much else.

Ireland pushed for the winner, Robinson picking up a couple of scraps in the box, twice almost manufacturing something from very little, but the urgency came far too late in another forgettable day.

A year on from his first game in charge, the line that Kenny just needs a bit of luck is beginning to wear thin for some, but the boss remained bullish afterwards.

"No, I certainly do not accept that. No, absolutely not,” he said when asked if he might have to accept that it was not working for him.

"We were absolutely exceptional against Portugal, we played very well in the previous game against Hungary, the previous game we scored four goals, the previous game against Qatar we played well and then the previous game, we obviously had a poor game against Luxembourg, but the previous game against Serbia, again excellent. So a lot of the recent performances have been very, very good.

"But we've got to turn performances into results. Today where we played a lot of good football and created a lot of chances, if we win 2-1, we're having a different conversation, so we're kicking ourselves that we haven't won that game.

“It’s probably a game we deserved to win 3-1 or 4-1.”

Republic of Ireland: G Bazunu, S Duffy, J Egan, S Coleman, M Doherty (J Collins 80), J McClean, J Cullen (A Browne 88), J Molumby (C Hourihane 63), T Parrott (C Robinson 63), A Idah, A Connolly (D Horgan HT).

Azerbaijan: S Magomedaliyev, G Garayev, H Haghverdi, M Medvedev (A Hüseynov 70), N Alaskarov (R Akmedzade 70), E Makhmudov, M Emreli (R Sheydaev 79), E Badalov, T Bayramov (A Salahli 70), A Krivotsyuk, F Ozobi? (A Nuriiev 79).

Referee: J Brisard (France)

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Football/Soccer