Macdara Ferris reports from the Aviva Stadium
It certainly wasn’t the occasion or indeed the result that Stephen Kenny wanted for his first home game in charge of the Republic of Ireland. In the cavernous empty Aviva Stadium without the backing of the supporting boys and girls in green in the stands, Ireland suffered a 1-0 defeat to Finland in the UEFA Nations League with Fredrik Jensen getting a 64th minute winner for the Finns.
Playing competitive international football in what is effectively pre-season for all the players meant it was no surprise that, particularly in the second half coming a few days after their opening Nations League game, that the pace dropped off. With no vocal backing from supporters to spur on their team, Ireland couldn’t force the issue in the final quarter and grab one of those beloved 1-1 draws.
The large flag on the seats in the East Stand read ‘Thank You, Jack’ in memory of the former Republic of Ireland manager. Under new boss Stephen Kenny, long gone is Jack Charlton’s favoured 4-4-2 replaced with a 4-3-3 formation with the Boys in Green moving the ball through midfield.
If anything the stereotype on the pitch was the Scandinavian model with Markku Kanerva’s men set up in an old school 4-4-2 and it was Finland who should have taken a lead into the break.
Not that there was too many chances at either end of the ground but the clearest of them came to the visitors after nine minutes. It was a huge let off for Ireland as Robert Taylor sent Teemu Pukki in on goal. Pukki scored ten goals in the ten qualifiers for EURO 2020 and most of those watching on in this behind-closed-doors game thought he would put Finland 1-0 up.
Darren Randolph had no such thoughts though as the West Ham 'keeper spread himself and saved the situation as Ireland were looking for an offside flag that never came.
Joel Pohjanpalo’s volley off Nikolai Alho's cross from the right was the other opportunity the visitors had in the first half.
Ireland kept a high line with the refrain of “high and higher” coming from Kenny’s ‘keeper throughout the game.
In the first half the Boys in Green – like they had done against Bulgaria – had the bulk of the possession with 57% and a solid 90% pass completion rate from their 300 first half passes.
Those stats though couldn’t convert into a goal. Harry Arter did let fly with a long distance effort that went straight at Lukas Hradecky but often Ireland’s crosses went too deep or couldn’t find an isolated Adam Idah in the box.
There was also a shout for a first half penalty when Juhani Ojala seemed to hold Shane Duffy down in the box five minutes from the break as the Ireland captain tried to get on the end of a Robbie Brady corner.
The pace dropped off in the second half with the lack of crowd particularly hurting Ireland who would have got the team going. Gradually though Ireland upped the pressure. They forced the Finns into an error with a short kick out with Idah’s backheel sending Aaron Connolly in on goal only for his effort to hit the side net.
Callum O’Dowda then tried to curl a left foot effort in but he failed to hit the target and just before the hour mark he limped off with an injury after blocking a ball, replaced by Callum Robinson.
It was another sub who made the biggest mark on the match as Fredrik Jensen scored with his first touch, bundling home Robert Taylor’s cross from the right after he had been given too much time and space out wide.
Ireland pushed for the equaliser. Robinson’s cross dropped just wide of Connolly inside the six-yard box while David McGoldrick goalbound effort was blocked by Juhani Ojala. Connolly then got a shot on target but hit it straight at the Finnish ‘keeper.
Nikolai Alho should have wrapped the result up five minutes from the end only for Randolph to reach out an outstretched arm to send his effort over the bar.
After that, an Arter long range effort, a Duffy header and a low McGoldrick driven shot were as close as Ireland came in the final few minutes to finding that equaliser but it wasn’t to be as Stephen Kenny suffered his first defeat as Ireland manager.
Republic of Ireland: Darren Randolph; Matt Doherty, John Egan, Shane Duffy ©, Enda Stevens; Jayson Molumby, Harry Arter, Robbie Brady; Callum O'Dowda (Callum Robinson 59) Adam Idah (David McGoldrick 66), Aaron Connolly (James McClean 77).
Subs not used: Mark Travers (gk), Caoimhin Kelleher (gk), Alan Browne, Séamus Coleman, Darragh Lenihan, Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy, Shane Long.
Booked: Harry Arter (66).
Finland: Lukas Hradecky; Leo Vaisanen, Daniel O'Shaughnessy, Juhani Ojala, Nicholas Hamalainen (Jere Uronen 79); Nikolai Alho, Tim Sparv (C), Glen Kamara, Robert Taylor; Joel Pohjanpalo (Fredrik Jensen 63), Teemu Pukki (Rasmus Karajalainen 90).
Subs not used: Jesse Joronen (gk), Anssi Jaakkola (gk), Albin Granlund, Thomas Lam, Santeri Hostikka, Joni Kauko, Ilmari Niskanen, Jasse Tuominen.
Referee: Fabio Maresca (Italy)
extratime.com man of the match: Harry Arter (Republic of Ireland)