WHEN a two-goal lead evaporated against Latvia, Chiedozie Ogbene’s first touch knocked the ball in and helped the Republic of Ireland win 3-2 at the AVIVA Stadium.
This followed first-half strikes from Callum O’Dowda and Evan Ferguson that seemed to set Stephen Kenny’s team up for a straightforward victory.
But Wednesday wasn’t just about opening up 2023 with a win, it was all about integrating graduates of the Under-21s team that reached the European Championships play-off round last year. The starting XI included Will Smallbone, and an in-form Ferguson, who got his first international start as the highest-scoring teenager in the Premier League this season.
The other focus was on Matt Doherty, with the full-back captaining Ireland almost five years to the day since he made his senior debut against Turkey. He put on the armband having just made one appearance for Atletico Madrid since signing in January.
Those two players combined for the first goal, with Ferguson picking out Doherty and he set up Smallbone. The midfielder crossed to the centre-circle and O’Dowda headed in after just five minutes.
Ferguson’s moment was the completion of an excellent passage of play that came from a Doherty cross on the right-hand side. Michael Obafemi kept this in play at the back post and put it to the striker, who tapped in his first goal for the senior team.
Just as Ireland settled into a sense of comfort, Latvia pushed up and a shot from Roberts Uldriķis silenced the Aviva. His attempt beat Jayson Molumby and Caoimhín Kelleher could do nothing about it as the ball sailed into the top left corner.
Ireland past the ball around once the game restarted, trying to settle themselves by going back to what they knew best. Then Jayson Molumby fouled Vladislavs Gutkovskis and Latvia won a free kick in the final minute of the first half. The ball went in and a shot deflected off of Nathan Collins, and Kelleher couldn’t get his hands to it.
The visitors were level and the whole stadium went into the half-time break stunned as Latvia scored twice off their two shots on target.
Stephen Kenny brought on John Egan and Ogbene with just over an hour played, and they came on alongside Celtic’s Michael Johnson, who recently declared for Ireland. The winger’s first involvement sent a shot to the near post and this went back out to a Latvian defender. His touch sent the ball into the path of Ogbene and his first touch knocked the ball in.
Ireland ground the game out to kickstart 2023 with a win in Dublin.
Caoimhín Kelleher; Callum O’Dowda, Dara O’Shea, Matt Doherty, Alan Browne, Michael Obafemi, Nathan Collins, Jayson Molumby, Evan Ferguson, Will Smallbone, Andrew Omobamidele.
John Egan for Omobamidele (62), Chiedozie Ogbene for Doherty (62), Michael Johnson for Obafemi (62), Troy Parrott for Ferguson (72), James McClean for O’Dowda (76), Jeff Hendrick for Will Smallbone (81).
Pāvels Šteinbors; Vladislavs Sorokins, Antonijs Černomordijs, Kristers Tobers, Vladislavs Gutkovskis, Jānis Ikaunieks, Roberts Savaļnieks, Andrejs Cigaņiks, Artūrs Zjuzins, Roberts Uldriķis, Daniels Balodis.
Marcis Oss for Balodis (h-t), Raimonds Krollis for Gutkovskis (55), Alvis Jaunzems for Ikaunieks (65), Renars Varslavans for Zjuzins (70), Aleksejs Saveljves (70), Davis Ikaunieks for Savaļnieks (81).