Nations League: Roller-coaster ride to continue for Irish

The Nations League returns to action for Ireland and Stephen Kenny, in a campaign punctuated by significant inconsistencies and ups and downs when it comes to results, writes John Roycroft
Nations League: Roller-coaster ride to continue for Irish

Cork's Chiedozie Ogbene going through his paces during a Republic of Ireland squad training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin, ahead of tonight's Nations League game against Scotland. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

YOU could be forgiven for not remembering that Ireland is still in the middle of a Nations League campaign. It seems like a long time ago that the Boys in Green played their opening set of League B, Group 1 games, back in early June.

Now that September is putting on its overcoat in preparation for departure, we are finally coming around to the next round of games, with Ireland making the short trip to Hampden Park to play Scotland tonight, followed by a home game against Armenia at the Aviva on Tuesday.

With the gap between the matches so extended, it is understandable if one needs reminding how we fared in those glut of four games played back in June. As has been Ireland's form under Stephen Kenny's tenure, the emotions and the results in the Nations League have been a roller-coaster of ups and downs.

The campaign started with Irish confidence high and the feeling that we had turned a corner in our form, only for us to find that the bend in the road was one of those never-ending loops you get on a mountain stage at the Tour de France.

Ireland’s Seamus Coleman looks dejected after the Nations League game against Armenia in Yerevan Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Ireland’s Seamus Coleman looks dejected after the Nations League game against Armenia in Yerevan Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Predictably unpredictable

A predicted win against Armenia went against us, predictably enough. Despite dominating possession in Yerevan, we went down 1-0 to the Armenians' only real strike on target.

With this significant dent in our armour, we returned to Dublin for our first home match, but it was against a Ukraine side playing in exile as the war back home continued.

On an emotional night, with many Ukrainian refugees in the stands at Lansdowne Road, it was the Ukrainians that edged the tight affair, separated by a single goal from Viktor Tsygankov, on 47 minutes.

While the loss was a disappointment, no defeat will seem so good when we saw what it meant to the players and fans from Ukraine, so far from their homes.

Ireland’s Alan Browne celebrates scoring the first goal of the game against Scotland.  Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Ireland’s Alan Browne celebrates scoring the first goal of the game against Scotland.  Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Nevertheless, the defeat left us with no points after two games and facing probably the group's best team on form in the shape of a Scotland side fresh off impressive performances in the World Cup qualifiers.

With few or no expectations ahead of the game in Dublin on June 11, it was entirely predictable that the Irish put in their best performance since Kenny took charge. A 20-minute goal by Cork's Alan Browne calmed the nerves, and when Troy Parrott finished off a sweet Michael Obafemi assist seven minutes later, one could sense it was going to be one of those rare occasions when the Irish would win comfortably. Parrott turned provider after the break when Obafemi struck a spectacular piledriver to the back of the net and claimed the man-of-the-match award and a 3-0 victory at full time.

Ireland's Michael Obafemi celebrates scoring the side's third goal during their Nations League match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ireland's Michael Obafemi celebrates scoring the side's third goal during their Nations League match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin.

Up and down

With us cock-a-hoop with our impressive victory, four days later, we travelled to Łódź in Poland for the return leg of the Ukraine game.

With the Eastern Europeans at the disadvantage of having to play their home games in another country and the boost we had from our win over the group favourites, we again hoped for the best in Poland.

Indeed, Ireland started brightly enough, much in the vein of the Scottish game, pushing hard in defence and quickly counterattacking. We got our reward on 31 minutes when a powerful individual effort from defender Nathan Collins saw his powerful right-footer find the back of the net.

But after the break, we took our minds off the game and were punished with a tap-in equaliser on 51-minutes. And while we huffed and puffed for the remainder of the game, we could not find a way to break down the Ukraine defence.

Even though we should have been awarded a penalty in injury time when Callum Robinson was brought down in the box, the referee decided to ignore VAR and not give us the chance to win it from the spot.

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny and Scotland's manager Steve Clarke at the end of the match during the UEFA Nations League match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. back on June 11, 
Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny and Scotland's manager Steve Clarke at the end of the match during the UEFA Nations League match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. back on June 11, 

Fallout

So that's it so far. Four points from a possible 12, and third in the table, five points behind the leaders, tonight's opponents, with Ukraine ahead of us in second, three points in front. Far from good, but not altogether bad either. It's the very definition of a Stephen Kenny campaign. Not good enough to achieve too much but spectacular enough in parts to promise so much more.

Kenny's team have, in part, looked impressive. Certainly, they play a nicer style of football, but inconsistency, especially for scoring goals, has let the whole project down so far.

The public has, so far, looked away due to circumstances and a lack of any real alternatives. But these are results that would not have been seen as acceptable a few tears ago. This Nations League, barring miraculous results, is over for Ireland. And that will have a detrimental effect on our chances of qualifying for Euro 2024.

As unlucky as Kenny was early on, with Covid-19 and injuries affecting his plans, he is now equally lucky that expectations from the home support have hardly ever been so generous.

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