Sean O’Connor reports from the Aviva Stadium
A late Shane Duffy header saved Ireland from disaster, as Stephen Kenny’s side drew 1-1 against Azerbaijan on Saturday evening.
It was a game in which we saw two contrasting Ireland sides. In the opening ten minutes, Ireland could have been two or three nil up through Adam Idah, Matt Doherty and Seamus Coleman.
The Boys in Green looked really threatening for parts of the second half too, registering 21 shots in total but struggled to find that killer instinct in front of goal. Kenny’s team put together some brilliant, cohesive moves, moved the ball from side to side and looked really bright for periods.
However, much of Ireland’s display was reminiscent of the Luxembourg disaster last March. Being overrun through the middle, putting simple balls out of play, and a total lack of conviction in front of goal when it really mattered.
All of these issues against a side 112th in the world, who were minutes away from only their second competitive away victory in in 27 attempts.
Approximately 25,000 supporters returned to the Aviva after a 22-month absence. But for periods, the usual raucous atmosphere at Lansdowne Road fell flat, just as Ireland’s performance level had.
It was the first ever meeting between the two sides. Before kick-off, they were joint bottom of Group A on zero points. Both teams had also shared similar form in qualification so far, with single goal losses against Portugal, Serbia, and Luxembourg.
Stephen Kenny, seeking his first home win as Ireland manager made three changes from the Portugal loss. Troy Parrott, Jayson Molumby and James McClean replaced Jamie McGrath, Jeff Hendrick, and the injured Dara O’Shea.
Ireland began the game in a 3-4-2-1 with McClean and Doherty deployed as wingbacks. Coleman returned to centre back with Shane Duffy and player of the year John Egan. Josh Cullen and Molumby sat in a “double six” with Aaron Connolly and Parrott sitting either side of central striker Adam Idah.
The home side began the game very well. Doherty went close with a header on five minutes, after a beautiful ball from Cullen. A minute later, Idah did brilliantly to run down the end line to square to Connolly, whose shot was blocked. Captain Coleman’s effort went just wide on ten minutes too, as the Irish supporters urged their side to find the opener.
The visitors settled into the game more after Ireland’s early onslaught, as Gavin Bazunu saved well from Alaskarov on the quarter hour mark. The 19-year-old was called into action again and saved Alaskarov’s 25-yard effort. After a bright start, the hosts were suddenly under the cosh and allowed Azerbaijan too much time and possession.
Ireland regained their shape and had two good chances halfway through the opening 45 minutes. Molumby’s effort from the edge of the box was inches wide, before Connolly's brilliant cross found Idah who headed just wide of Magomedaliyev’s goal.
But Ireland were really lethargic in the last ten minutes of the half and struggled to string more than a few passes together at a time. Their press totally broke down and they began to sit off Azerbaijan. After a super start, there now seemed to be no energy in their play.
Late in the first half Emin Makhmudov found himself 30 yards from goal, and under no pressure whatsoever from Coleman or Doherty, he hit the back of the net, giving Bazunu no chance. The goal sucked the life out of the Aviva and was the last action of the half.
Daryl Horgan replaced Connolly at the break, with Ireland in desperate need of a spark of creativity going forward.
Azerbaijan goalkeeper Mahammadaliyev was cautioned early on for time-wasting, an indication of how the visitors were treating the second half, having won just one in their last 13 games.
Ireland enjoyed prolonged spells of possession but failed to produce many chances thus far as the game approached the hour mark. Sitting tight in two banks of four, Azerbaijan were doing everything in their power to disrupt Ireland’s rhythm.
Parrott’s effort from the edge of the area was well saved before Idah’s glancing header went just wide. Ireland were beginning to turn the screw as Robinson and Hourihane were introduced. Horgan’s cross field pass found Coleman, who on another day could have had a penalty after being blocked in the box.
Duffy went close, heading just over from Robinson’s cross. The visitors made a triple substitution on 70 mins and as expected , wound down the clock as best they could.
Hourihane and Horgan’s succession of crosses proved unsuccessful, with the Azerbaijan keeper collecting a lot of them himself. Ireland began to ditch the patient approach with long balls into the box, reminiscent of past regimes. Despite the Irish attacks, the visitors counterattacked twice, and Bazunu saved smartly with his left leg with 15 minutes remaining.
Robinson was agonisingly to finding an equalizer with ten minutes left but sent his effort wide from the six-yard box, which drew groans from the Irish support.
That unease turned to celebration and relief three minutes from time. Cullen’s deep cross found Duffy who headed in the long-awaited equaliser. The Aviva support found their voice again after an at times, worrying performance.
Five minutes of added time were announced, and Ireland sent in more crosses in search of a winner, amid roars from all sides of Lansdowne Road.
Robinson went close again but his effort was well saved, and it proved to be the last action of the evening, as Ireland narrowly avoided another disastrous result.
Ireland are now fifteen competitive games without a win, and tonight’s draw leaves still leaves them joint bottom of Group A on one point.
Republic of Ireland: Gavin Bazunu; Matt Doherty(James Collins 79), Seamus Coleman(C), Shane Duffy, John Egan, James McClean; Jayson Molumby (Conor Hourihane 62), Josh Cullen (Alan Browne 87); Troy Parrott (Callum Robinson 62), Adam Idah, Aaron Connolly (Daryl Horgan h/t).
Subs not used: Caoimhin Kelleher, James Talbot, Ryan Manning, Andrew Omobamidele, Jeff Hendrick, Jamie McGrath, Ronan Curtis.
Booked: Jayson Molumby (56), Alan Browne (90)
Azerbaijan: Shakhrudin Mahammadaliyev; Gara Garayev, Maksim Medvedev © ( Abbas Huseynov 70), Hojjat Haghverdi, Elvin Badalov, Anton Krivotsyuk, Emin Makhmudov, Tural Bayramov, Namik Alaskarov (Rustam Akhmedzade 70), Mahir Emreli (Ramil Sheydayev 79), Filip Ozobic (Anatolii Nuriyev 80).
Subs not used: Aydin Bayramov, Mekhti Dzhenetov; Rahim Sadikhov, Azer Salahli, Vugar Mustafayev, Ismayil Ibrahhimli, Bahlul Mustafazade, Tamkin Khalilzade.
Booked: Anton Krivotsyuk (67)
Referee: Jerome Brisard (France)
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Adam Idah (Republic of Ireland)