Football/Soccer

Ireland win but negatives outweigh the positives in ropey Armenia display

Republic of Ireland's John Egan (third left) celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the game. Robbie Brady scored a stoppage-time winner against Armenia
Brendan Crossan

Uefa Nations League Group B1: Republic of Ireland 3 Armenia 2

THE returning Robbie Brady was the toast of Dublin last night as his late penalty spared Republic of Ireland's blushes against nine-man Armenia in a crazy second half that saw Stephen Kenny's men just about hold on to their Pot Three seeding for next month's Euro 2024 draw.

Last night's erratic performance threw up more questions than answers for Stephen Kenny as the home side squandered a two-goal advantage in an incredible two-minute second-half spell.

John Egan and Michael Obafemi hit the net for Ireland - one in each half - and it looked to be plain sailing. But then the wheels came off in spectacular fashion.

Substitutes Artak Dashyan and Eduard Spertsyan grabbed two freakish goals in the 71st and 73rd minutes that completely spooked the home side.

As soon as Dashyan found the net to make a game of it, Spertsyan capitalised on a terrible mistake from Conor Hourihane to level things up.

Ireland were panicky for the remainder and were bailed out by a VAR penalty decision after Dashyan was adjudged to have handled the ball following Dara O'Shea's close-range shot.

Before Brady could take the penalty, Armenia duo Hovhannes Hambartsumyan and Dashyan were red-carded for their over-zealous protests.

Brady, however, kept his cool and slotted home a 91st minute penalty to win the tie, but this was a messy, uninspiring performance from the Irish.

Given that this was a Nations League relegation play-off and Ireland could ill-afford to be dropping into Pot Four ahead of next month’s Euro 2024 qualification draw, it was no surprise Kenny made minimal changes from last Saturday night’s 2-1 loss to Scotland.

Brady and Jeff Hendrick came in for James McClean and the suspended Josh Cullen with a similar shape to the side that for long periods did well in Glasgow.

Armenia were also coming off a loss – a 5-0 thrashing to Ukraine – and were duly softened up for their last game in Group B1.

With an ageing squad and having to embark on a 5000km trip from Yerevan to Dublin, it looked as though the Armenians had walked rather than flown to the Irish capital, they looked that lethargic.

After conceding five goals three nights earlier, it was no surprise the visitors set up with a defensive low block, stringing five players – sometimes six – across their 18-yard box.

When they parked the bus as Armenia did, the home side found it difficult to play with any discernible tempo.

Their central defensive trio of John Egan, Nathan Collins and Dara O’Shea were marking thin air for most of the night and when they did gain possession they had perhaps too much time and the build-up play was slow as a result.

Collins and O’Shea tried to become auxiliary midfielders but the latter especially looked every bit the central defender entering enemy lines and was often wasteful when he got there.

Further forward Jason Knight buzzed around the inside left channel and on 11 minutes put one brilliant cross in for Michael Obafemi whose header from eight yards out flashed wide of David Yurchenko’s left hand post.

Hendrick, on the right hand side of Ireland’s three-pronged midfield, looked leggy while Jayson Molumby was the fetch-and carrier element in the middle and showed good urgency in the role in the early stages before his night went pear-shaped soon after the restart.

Kenny has endeavoured to change Ireland’s football philosophy over the last two years but, as against Scotland, they opened the scoring through a set piece, John Egan rising to nod home Brady’s corner after 15 minutes.

The goal should have inspired the Irish to quicken their play, but if anything, it slowed and as a spectacle this Nations League tie became a bit of a grind. Little did the home crowd know what was around the corner.

Egan went close again soon after rippling Armenia’s net from another Brady corner but the chances dried up thereafter.

Ireland's play was too conservative and was woefully lacking in attempts on goal, particularly from outside the box against Yurchenko who looked far from a safe pair of hands in Armenia's goal.

Obafemi, however, duly obliged in the 52nd minute when he tried his luck from 25 yards and saw his effort nestle in the corner of Armenia's net to make it two international goals in six appearances.

The 22-year-old Swansea striker's goal wasn't as spectacular as his scorcher against Scotland back in June but it should have eased the home side over the line.

Two minutes earlier, Kenny was right to substitute Molumby who was very fortunate to escape a second yellow card offence for a cynical foul. The on-loan West Brom midfielder was shaking his head at his 50th minute withdrawal as Conor Hourihane assumed the anchor role.

But with 20 minutes remaining all hell broke loose with Armenia somehow climbing off the canvas and almost landing a knock-out blow of their own.

Hourihane endured a nightmare, giving the ball away cheaply to allow Armenia to equalise. No-one breathed a bigger sigh of relief than him as Brady banked the points with his late spot-kick.

But this was another one of those nights where it felt like two steps forward and three back. No-one will fear playing Ireland in the October 9 Euro 2024 draw.

Just when you think the road is starting to clear, Ireland always seem to find a stone on the road.

PLAYER RATINGS

Gavin Bazunu: A virtual spectator in the first half and beaten twice in a crazy couple of minutes in the second half. Should have done better for Armenia’s second. 6

Matt Doherty: Did okay at times but needed to do more down Ireland’s right flank as he had good possession and didn’t make enough of it. 4

Robbie Brady: Still only 30, the returning Brady won this game with a stoppage-time penalty. Good club form for Preston NE earned him a recall. His deliveries were generally of a high order and he held his nerve to convert his spot-kick. 6

John Egan: Two goals in two games, three international goals in total, the Sheffield United defender is becoming as prolific as Shane Duffy from set pieces. 6.5

Nathan Collins: Showed some leadership, defended well and kept driving forward in search of a winner. 6

Dara O’Shea: Looked a bit ungainly on the left side of Ireland’s defence. Passing was ropey at times. 5

Jeff Hendrick: Recalled to the starting line-up but didn’t convince. Looked leggy and his final ball could have been better. 5

Jayson Molumby: Lucky he was not sent off in the 48th minute for a second and clear bookable offence and was rightly withdrawn on 50 minutes. Was energetic in the first half. 5

Jason Knight: Looked like the one player who carried some creativity in the first half, but faded badly in the second period and was replaced in the final 15 minutes. 5

STAR MAN: Michael Obafemi: Lively and caused the Armenian defence plenty of stress. Great finish from distance before being called ashore due to injury. 7

Troy Parrott: Can’t fault his work-rate, always showing for the ball and harassing the Armenia defence but didn’t get a sight of Armenia’s goal. Replaced by Robinson in the last 15 minutes. 6

Subs:

Conor Hourihane: Awful pass that allowed Armenia to equalise. Skied a chance to put Ireland ahead again. 4

Callum Robinson: Held the ball up well. 6

Alan Browne: Worked hard without seeing many good possessions. 5

Scott Hogan: Missed a late chance. 5

Football/Soccer