By Damian Spellman, PA
Substitute Alan Browne ensured the Republic of Ireland’s big day did not end in defeat as his late equaliser secured a creditable draw against world number one side Belgium.
Browne powered home an 86th-minute header as the Football Association of Ireland’s centenary game ended 2-2 at the Aviva Stadium.
It was no more than Stephen Kenny’s side deserved – they are now unbeaten in seven outings and have now lost only once in 11, and that against Portugal – after Chiedozie Ogbene had cancelled out Michy Batshuayi’s sumptuous opener, only for Hans Vanaken’s deflected header to hand the visitors the lead once again.
Roberto Martinez may have left his biggest names at home, but still fielded a strong side, and it was to Ireland’s credit that Josh Cullen, who plays his club football for Anderlecht, and Ogbene in particular did not look out of place despite the illustrious company they were keeping against a team who will be among the favourites to lift the World Cup in Qatar.
In a cagey start, the visitors saw plenty of the ball, but largely deep inside their own half as Ireland’s press denied them space, leaving back three Jason Denayer, Dedryck Boyata and Arthur Theate repeatedly passing the ball between themselves.
When Ireland were in possession, Cullen and Jeff Hendrick tried to inject impetus, but they too were operating at a distance from the men ahead of them.
However, Belgium took the lead courtesy of the game’s first real moment of quality with 12 minutes gone when Batshuayi picked up the ball wide on the left and cut inside Seamus Coleman before dispatching a delicious curling shot past the diving Caoimhin Kelleher.
He might have doubled his tally within four minutes, but Cullen’s last-ditch block sent his attempt ballooning over the crossbar.
The movement of Charles De Ketelaere and Vanaken behind Batshuayi was causing the Republic all kinds of problems with the Belgians slipping into their well-established rhythm despite the six changes Martinez had made to his team, and the striker, currently on loan from Chelsea at Besiktas, dragged a 23rd-minute effort into the side-netting as he tried to catch out Kelleher at his near post.
If the locals among a crowd of 48,808 had little to cheer in the opening 25 minutes, they had something – or someone – to boo when images of the Belgian bench, including a sheepish Thierry Henry, whose handball famously denied Ireland their place at the 2010 World Cup finals, appeared on the big screen.
The home side gradually worked their way into the game with James McClean and Jason Knight linking well down the left, and the Wigan man saw a 34th-minute shot from distance deflected wide.
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They were back level within seconds when Theate and Youri Tielemans went up with Shane Duffy in an attempt to meet Callum Robinson’s cross and Ogbene controlled the loose ball with his back to goal before acrobatically hooking a shot beyond helpless keeper Simon Mignolet.
Ireland returned with their tails up and might have been ahead within two minutes when, after Coleman had won possession in midfield and driven forward, Robinson saw his instinctive flick as he tried to turn McClean’s shot past Mignolet cleared off the line by Denayer.
Duffy was relieved to see Batshuayi’s 57th-minute shot fly just wide after he had thrown himself into its path, but the respite proved temporary as Vanaken’s header from the resulting corner hit the unfortunate Coleman and flew past Kelleher.
Robinson was denied by Mignolet after turning expertly on to McClean’s ball into his feet, but the home side got their reward with four minutes remaining when Browne climbed high to thump a header home from Ogbene’s inviting cross.