The two best players for Ireland in Portugal were from Cork

Ireland put in an unexpectedly brilliant performance against Portugal on Wednesday, but as John Roycroft points out, they need to build on that performance for the coming games against Azerbaijan and Serbia.
The two best players for Ireland in Portugal were from Cork

Ireland's John Egan celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifying group A match against Portugal at Estádio Algarve in Faro, Portugal. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

THE summer of international football was a delight to watch. The 2020-1 Euros will go down as one of the best tournaments of all time. 

However, the return to international action for the World Cup qualifiers against former European champions Portugal on Wednesday, and the two home games, firstly against Azerbaijan on Saturday and then Serbia on Tuesday, from an Irish perspective, did not offer such an enticing prospect.

One win out of 13 games, facing the might of Ronaldo, Pepe, Bruno Fernandes, and Diogo Jota, along with that defeat to Luxembourg stuck in our heads, only seemed to offer the potential for another horror movie moment rather than any real sporting entertainment.

As I've said here before, the first goal for a manager in international qualifiers is to not get beaten. A point saved or an improved coefficient is more important than entertaining the spectators. The home and away format of qualifiers encourages international coaches to be cagey as away draws are worth a lot when you have the hope of bringing back your opponents to back home turf and the hope of a more positive result in front of the home fans.

To be fair, prior to the game, Irish manager Stephen Kenny said he was not going to just bring the bus for a block defence, "if we are to get something from the game we will need to work on our attacking options too."

I just presumed that Kenny was talking up his game plan for a moment of sportsmanship against the Portuguese and I expected nothing more than 10 men behind the ball for the entire game.

That’s what we all expected, both pundits and fans alike.

Ireland goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves a penalty from Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ireland goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves a penalty from Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

But how wrong we were, especially in the first half. After weathering the Portuguese pressure for the first 15 to 20 minutes, including the brilliant penalty save from Ronaldo by young Gavin Bazunu, we got back in the game and dominated the remaining minutes of the half to the point that when John Egan’s goal came it was not altogether surprising.

Coming on the day before the anniversary of maybe Ireland’s greatest qualifying game against Holland in 2001 in the old Lansdowne Road, the Irish seemed inspired to great things again against the Iberian powerhouse.

For 90 minutes it looked like a new miracle moment for Irish football annals. 

But the persistence of Portugal and Ronaldo was not to be denied in the end and with the generous time allowance from the referee, Portugal claimed the points, Ronaldo bagged his scoring world record, and Irish hearts were broken.

Importantly though, there were so many outstanding performances from Ireland to build on. Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy, Josh Cullen, and Andrew Omobamidele all put in wonderful shifts and were out on their feet in the end. 

From a Cork perspective, the two best players on the pitch were Leesiders. The goalscorer and heart of the magnificent defence that kept Ronaldo out for 90 minutes, John Egan deservedly claimed the man-of-the-match award, unfortunately, the Bishopstown stalwart picked up a few bruises for good measure too.

Ireland's Adam Idah and Portugal's Kleper Pepe battle for the ball. Picture: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire
Ireland's Adam Idah and Portugal's Kleper Pepe battle for the ball. Picture: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire

And then there was Adam Idah, selflessly leading the counterattacking line with a performance of guts and skill that should see the former College Corinthians player’s reputation in Ireland and Norwich grow even stronger.

Once again though, it was a hard result for Stephen Kenny. His 14 defeats to one victory record, during his tenure as the international boss, does not make for great reading, but after the heart shown on Wednesday night, hope has been restored that there is a bright future to come for many of these young Irish players.

All of Kenny's luck has been bad so far. Not least taking the helm in the middle of a pandemic. So opinion still remains in favour of the Dubliner’s tenure. But it’s now important to make the most of the momentum from Wednesday to see off the Azeris tomorrow evening and hopefully Serbia on Tuesday.

Ireland's Matt Doherty and team manager Stephen Kenny look dejected after the game against Portugal. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Ireland's Matt Doherty and team manager Stephen Kenny look dejected after the game against Portugal. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Still, the shadow of the Luxembourg result hangs large over this Irish team. Moral victories in defeats to Portugal and earlier to Serbia is one thing. Losing to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan is another thing altogether. We need to beat the minnows as much as we have to put in the hard shifts against the superpowers. One hopes they didn't leave it all out on the field in Faro. 

As the world and this island nation exit from the constraints and drawbacks of the pandemic, one wonders how long will the football public remain sympathetic to Kenny's ongoing bad luck. Returning to the old normal will invariably see a return to old expectations too. Something else Kenny will have to resolve.

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