Armenia 1, Republic of Ireland 0
minute before the hour mark at the Republican Stadium in Yerevan, the injury of an Armenian player opened up the opportunity for an additional water break. The green jerseys showed that it was urgent to get out of the way, eager to hydrate in the conditions. Only a handful of Armenians went to the physio to do the same. It was an informative response.
It’s not a buildup to claim that the weather was the reason for Ireland’s struggles here. Yes, it would be dishonest to rule out the 33-degree heat as a factor, but Seamus Coleman had pointed out the day before the match that would not work as an acceptable excuse.
What was more telling was that Stephen Kenny and his assistant Keith Andrews were keen to participate in another team chat, as the natives seemed content with the state of play. Their coach, Joaquín Caparrós, said they had a good half-time chat to figure out where they could improve after offering shortly before that. “Football consists of two halves, not one half,” said the experienced Spaniard.
His position looked threatened after a nine-goal thrashing at the hands of Norway in March. The 66-year-old was applauded during his press conference.
Kenny’s face carried the story of frustration, a familiar feeling he hoped to leave behind. On the eve of the match, he challenged Ireland’s 2020 Nations League record increase, a window where a decimated side with Covid problems struggled in empty stadiums. He had no such issues this time, but there were parallels in terms of results. More worryingly, there was a crossover with World Cup nightmares at home to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
Ireland had more ball possession and managed 312 more passes than the hosts, but against a conservative approach they weren’t cute enough to open the locks. Innovation against strong teams indicated things were going in the right direction, but that won’t count for anything without killer instincts.
The Nations League is Ireland’s backstop if regular qualification goes awry, and it’s also a method of securing a better ranking. If the last twelve games reflected one step forward, it was two back. Kenny admitted his team’s start to the second half was cause for concern and said he would accept the criticism. He has a job to do to lift his players for Wednesday’s clash against Ukraine. It’s another test of this group’s resolve and will reignite the factional debate over the manager, which threatened to die down with the award of a new contract.
In some ways, Ireland’s performance in the first half could be explained by the contribution of Nathan Collins. On his competitive debut, the Burnley defender was one of the unapologetic visiting starters for rust given he was active until the end of the Premier League season.
Still, he was guilty of sloppy touches in an early spell that set the tone as it became clear Armenia were ready to sit deep and defend in a back five, a strategy Kenny never expected. not, claiming she had only appeared in homework once out of their last 20 games. “They always played 4-4-2 and we struggled to break them down,” he said.
Under minimal pressure, Ireland managed to get themselves into trouble and Caoimhín Kelleher was called into action from a snap by Tigran Barseghyan. From another misplaced pass from Collins, Shane Duffy entered the book for a reckless challenge. Self-inflicted pain.
Still, as the half progressed, the three Irish backs spent more time around the halfway line, enjoying plenty of time on the ball and Collins’ calm touches to eliminate potential counters illustrated his confidence . With the Armenians posing little threat, Ireland needed subtlety to break up a small low block of red shirts.
Chances were created with Jeff Hendrick, who later passed out, having his eye on the slot through the balls. Callum Robinson could have enjoyed his vision twice with the West Brom striker, out of action since May 7, with his last start on April 15, lacking sharpness when it mattered, despite not having lucked out when a shot from a Chiedozie Ogbene cut. was turned back.
Troy Parrott, the other member of the front three, drifted in and out of the game, but he was another one of those Ireland internationals where the lack of a natural attacking playing number ten was evident. Ogbene missed a free header before the break, another sign of potential Armenian vulnerability; Ireland just needed to exhibit it more regularly.
Upon reboot, there was no real additional penetration. There were isolated moments of opportunity that weren’t significant enough to worry unconvincing keeper David Yurchenko. Ogbene, a major threat in previous outings on the road, was rarely able to get on the last man’s shoulder as centre-halves sat back. Surprise packages only retain this status for so long; Armenia was able to read Irish intentions.
Warning signs flashed. A proper offside flag netted a Tigran Barseghyan left footer from inside the box, but minutes later he was allowed to loop in another one from just short. Kenny pitched Obafemi for Parrott, dropping Robinson deeper and then went for James McClean and Jason Knight in place of Stevens and Robinson. Obafemi’s introduction was eagerly awaited, but he looked like a new signing finding his feet.
More importantly, when Armenia advanced, the Irish structure appeared fragile with a gap between the lines.
The ball was headed towards Eduard Sperstyan, a Russian talent locally regarded as the heir to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who had plenty of time to unleash the shot that went past Kelleher.
Ireland were given 15 minutes to react and Will Keane and Alan Browne were thrown into the mix as Ogbene assumed Coleman’s position from the back and the cross count piled up. Alas it was frenzied more than calculated and Armenia, like the whole match, was content to absorb the pressure and bet on an Ireland lacking in ideas.
It was the right call.