So close…

The Republic of Ireland lost out on penalties to Slovakia in Bratislava last night. This semi-final loss means Stephen Kenny’s men are completely out of the race to get to Euro 2020 next year. Despite their impressive display over 120 minutes it was not enough to stop the Slovakians from setting up a final in Windsor Park next month.

Live: Slovakia v Republic of Ireland - updates
Robinson went close in the first minute

Despite almost scoring within the first minute, Ireland were flat in the first half an hour. The lack of matches under Kenny’s tutelage was apparent as the players failed to link up successfully. Slovakia held a good portion of the possession without really threatening. Marek Hamsik pulled the strings in midfield.
After the thirty minute mark the men in white flipped a switch and began to attack. Ireland fans used to the hit and hope methods of messrs O’Neill and McCarthy may have been astounded by watching our midfield spray it out to the wings who actually passed the ball back and around instead of launching hopeful balls into the box.
Slovakia were well organised at the back. They didn’t offer Ireland many chances to get through in the first half. James McClean should have done better from close range but the signs were positive coming up to the break.
Ireland were lucky to go into the break level. Darren Randolph made a brilliant save before Duda sent a bicycle kick narrowly wide.

Both teams came out running in the second half. Marek Hamsik almost scored an own goal which would have been a poor return for his brilliant performance in the first half. James McClean was full of energy and determination as always but wasn’t seeing much of the ball. A double substitution saw McClean (tactical) and James McCarthy (injury) replaced by Robbie Brady and Alan Browne. The latter should have scored in the 70th minute. David McGoldrick held onto the ball in the middle before finding Enda Stevens. Stevens broke through the middle, setting Browne up for a shot on goal. He fired high and direct when cutting across the keeper might have been the better option.
The action was nonstop in the last 20 minutes. Down the other end of the field Shane Duffy’s magnificent goal-line clearance kept Irish hopes alive. The Celtic defender’s experience showed in the latter stages of the game as he popped up again and again with that head of his to clear the lines.
Back to the Slovakian goalline in the 83rd minute and after great close control from McGoldrick again and wonderful link up from Callum Robinson and Browne, Conor Hourihane somehow managed to muss from point blank range. Extra time beckoned.

Live: Slovakia v Republic of Ireland - updates
Duffy was a rock at the back all game

The width of the post denied Ireland a goal in the first half of extra time. After trading possession and periods of passing, Alan Browne almost broke the deadlock. Callum O’Dowda, who came on forCallum Robinson, linked up with Robbie Brady on the byline before a creative flick from Browne hit the post.

It looked like Matt Doherty was going to join James McCarthy in the sick bay in the second half. The Tottenham wing back went down clutching his hamstring during a break in play. This would have made more selection problems for Kenny against Wales and Finland but luckily he came back on almost immediately. An undercooked pass from Darren Randolph almost gifted Slovakia a goal but there was nothing to split Fifa’s 37th and 36th ranked teams.

Browne and Doherty missed the decisive penalties. Stephen Kenny’s team won’t be going to Euro 2020. However, the lads can hold their heads high. They may rue missed chances but defensively they were fantastic and the attacking intent was there. So too was patience and build-up, something that has been missing from the Irish game for a long time. Richie Sadlier said it best when he commented that we would normally have to wait for the type of passing and movement from the players until they were a goal down. Tonight it happened naturally.

Despite the crushing disappointment that comes with losing a semi-final, this group of players will feel more comfortable with each other on Sunday and Wednesday. I expect another tight match against Wales and a win against Finland.

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