THERE was progress but not the progress we wanted to see.
Ireland will be on the door when the Euro 2020 party gets underway in the Aviva Stadium but will not be allowed in as qualification hopes were ended cruelly on penalties in Slovakia.
Matt Doherty steps up but his effort slams against the crossbar!The Republic of Ireland’s dreams of reaching next summer’s European Championship finals are over!pic.twitter.com/jSwOhQm7DN
— Sky Sports (@SkySports) October 8, 2020
Ireland crashed out to Slovakia on penalties
A 4-2 loss in the shootout means that Slovakia will now go on to face Northern Ireland in the play-off final for a place in the final, with the winners based out of Dublin.
But it was a night when Ireland could and perhaps should have won.
Marek Rodak’s goal led a charmed life at times, the woodwork was hit and Stephen Kenny’s men produced plenty of good football.
But this game was never a barometer of the progress made under Kenny, the only progress that matter was getting into the play-off final.
Alan Browne missed his spot kick
And when it went down to a shootout, Slovakia were perfect with their four and Conor Hourihane and Robbie Brady were successful with Ireland’s first two.
But Alan Browne’s effort was saved and Matt Doherty’s one cannoned off the crossbar that ended the tie. Slovakia go on and Ireland go out.
It will be raw for a while, and worse next summer. But boss Kenny needs to pick up his team quickly and build on it.
Had Browne beaten Rodak with a good chance on 70 minutes, or Hourihane’s effort not been cleared off the line after 86 minutes, the game could have been over.
If Browne’s instinctive flick from a Callum O’Dowda in extra time went in instead of coming back off the post, the shootout could have been avoided.
Of course, Slovakia had opportunities too and will bemoan one Darren Randolph wonder save from Ondrej Duda and Shane Duffy’s goal line clearance from Lukas Haraslin.
But, on balance, Ireland were the better team over two hours of football and lost it on the spot kicks at the end.
Kenny’s team put disjointed preparations behind them as a member of the FAI’s travelling party had tested positive for Covid-19 having tested negative before the team travelled.
Conor Hourihane missed a golden chance
Kenny did not say before kick-off did it impact on his team. But Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah went from being named among the substitutes to not being in the squad.
James McClean instead started on the left as the Ireland gaffer acknowledged it was a last minute decision as he joined Callum Robinson and David McGoldrick in a new-look attack.
That front three all made contributions.
Robinson had a shot blocked by Denis Vavro inside the opening 40 seconds when he won possession on the edge of the Slovakia area.
Later he and Jeff Hendrick combined on the right with his dangerous looking cross scrambled away for a corner with McGoldrick loitering behind him.
The Sheffield United man was busy. He drifted wide and deep that confused the Slovakia back line while he had an early header off target from a McClean cross.
But it was McClean who had the best opportunity of the first half on 37 minutes.
Ireland had a long spell of possession before Doherty fired in a deep cross from the right that picked out Hourihane beyond the far post.
Ireland will now cruelly miss out with the tournament held in Dublin
He cleverly laid the ball inside though McClean seemed surprised to receive it as he snapped at his shot that was going wide when it struck Martin Valjent.
Ireland were well on top, even if there were few sights of goal as they played on the front foot.
The sight of left back Enda Stevens popping on the right wing or centre half John Egan bursting forward highlighted it.
Slovakia goalkeeper Rodak was also struggling with his distribution as Ireland cut off avenues forward.
Yet, when the home side did keep the ball, they were able to threaten as they threatened down both flanks.
Stevens and Duffy were required to close the door when Duda almost squeezed through onto a Patrik Hrosovsky pass on 38 minutes.
And he twice went close on the stroke of half time.
The first occasion required a top drawer Randolph save to keep it out as Duda cut in from the left and had a shot that was destined for the bottom corner.
And, with the final action of the half, his overhead kick from Peter Pekarik flew wide though the Ireland defence had questions about how a short corner trick nearly caught them out.
Slovakia also started the second half brightly as they passed the ball around Ireland, but rarely through them.
Jan Gregus scored a chipped penalty
Duffy and Doherty made big interceptions while Egan continually stepped out to snuff out trouble.
But Ireland were also beginning to fade with a tired Hendrick pass setting Slovakia off in attack that resulted in Albert Rusnak firing well over.
Browne and Brady were introduced in place of the injured McCarthy and McClean to freshen things up.
Yet as the game ticked into the final minutes of normal time, Ireland’s only opportunity of the second half was when Hamsik almost headed a Hourihane free kick into his own net.
It looked like a game that could be decided by one chance – and Ireland missed two in the final 20 minutes.
On 70 minutes, Ireland flew up the field with Stevens driving forward before picking out the unmarked Browne running in front the right whose shot was turned away by Rodak.
And there was an even better one with four minutes to go when McGoldrick, Robinson and Browne combined in the area to set up Hourihane.
He was six-yards from goal and Rodak was absent. But his shot was blocked by Juraj Kucka and denied Ireland a goal that would almost certainly have won the tie.
Still, that evened out Ireland’s only goal line escape on 73 minutes when Duffy cleared from Lukas Haraslin after his shot had beaten Randolph.
It meant extra-time was needed and it continued to ebb and flow.
McGoldrick stung Rodak’s palms straight after the restart while Browne had a header hacked away in the six-yard box.
Browne then had another great chance when he hit the post with an instinctive shot from a Callum O’Dowda cut back.
Slovakia substitute Haraslin fizzed a volley just over Randolph’s crossbar while Brady saw a free kick fly inches wide.
But penalties were needed. Slovakia were clinical, Ireland were not. The memories of this one will linger, especially when the Euros kick off in Dublin next June. More