Stephen Kenny noted before this play-off that it had been more than four years since the Republic of Ireland were awarded a penalty. After a goalless draw in Bratislava his team got four chances to score from the spot but Alan Browne and Matt Doherty missed two of them, leaving Slovakia, who were faultless in the shootout, to advance to an ultimate play-off against Northern Ireland for a place in the European Championship finals.
Elimination was all the more agonising for Ireland because in the preceding 120 minutes they performed with a style that justified Kenny’s belief in their creative potential. The 0-0 scoreline at full time attested to familiar Irish traits – defensive strength, offensive bluntness – but within that time-worn pattern there was plenty of evidence of positive change, as Kenny’s men forced their hosts on to the back foot for long periods with an energetic, technically assured and adventurous approach.
Conor Hourihane had a shot from six yards cleared off the line in the closing minutes off normal time and Browne struck a post in extra time after an excellent move involving Enda Stevens and Callum O’Dowda. But the hosts hung on to take the game to a shootout, where their goalkeeper, Fulham’s Marek Rodak, made a fine save to deny Browne. Slovakia celebrated victory when Doherty’s penalty bounced back off the crossbar.
“I’m really disappointed for the players because they didn’t deserve to lose,” said Kenny. “I couldn’t ask any more from them. They really showed great qualities as Irishmen. They showed themselves to be a real team. It shows we have got good players.”
Both teams endured difficult buildups to the match, with Slovakia deprived of a couple of key players owing to Covid-19 and Ireland’s preparations upset immediately before the game when a member of their backroom staff found out he had tested positive for the virus. Two Irish substitutes, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly, then had to be removed from the squad because they had been within two metres of that staff member.
“We have more stringent rules in Ireland than in the UK,” Kenny explained. “The lads are perfectly fine, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, but we had to abide by the rules.” Connolly may still be developing as a predator but the Brighton’s forward’s finishing skills might have come in useful. That said, his replacement, James McClean, performed well as Ireland started aggressively.
The hosts showed their passing prowess for a spell after that, slickly playing their way forward before foundering on a vigilant Irish defence. Ireland soon responded in kind, though neither goal was threatened until the half-hour mark, when David McGoldrick headed over from a cross by McClean. The Stoke winger then had a shot blocked by Martin Valjent as Ireland played with more confidence than they have shown on their travels for a long time.
Slovakia looked toothless until a counterattack just before the interval. Darren Randolph flung himself to his left to tip away a curling shot by Ondrej Duda, who went close with an acrobatic volley from the resultant corner.
As the game wore on, Ireland looked by far the more likely winners. McGoldrick wove intricate magic as a centre-forward who regularly dropped deep, while Jeff Hendrick and Hourihane probed well. Hourihane should have scored, however, when he was presented with the ball six yards from goal after a marvellous move involving McGoldrick, Callum Robinson and Browne, but his weak shot was cleared off the line.
Moments earlier Shane Duffy had rescued Ireland by making a similar clearance to deny Lukas Haraslin following a superb pass by Marek Hamsik.
Ireland were much the better side in extra time, when Rodak saved from McGoldrick and Browne had a header blocked on the line. Browne’s bursts from deep following his introduction from the bench proved a dangerous addition to Ireland’s attack.
In the 105th minute Stevens and O’Dowda combined wonderfully before the latter cut the ball back for Browne, who had made another clever run to get on the end of it. He did well to flick the ball past the keeper but it came back off a post.
Ireland’s fate was then sealed in the shootout. “We created a lot of chances but it just wasn’t our night,” said Duffy. “It’s heartbreaking.”