The lottery of penalties, otherwise known as a test of skill under pressure, did for a much-improved Ireland, who created more than enough big chances to win the game both in 90 minutes and extra-time. They go back to the Nations league, while Slovakia can look forward to a play-off against Northern Ireland which will decide who moves on to Euro 2020ish.
The first half was a fairly dull affair, the lack of atmosphere apparently affecting the players despite the colossal stakes. But it was Slovakia who came closes to scoring, Jaroslav Mihalik only just failing to get on the end of Marek Hamsik’s lovely pass and Ondrej Duda twice coming close in the minute before the break.
The second 45 was more open and more entertaining, both teams making great chances, for Lukas Haraslin and Conor Hourihane respectively, but both were denied by fine goalline clearances, by Shane Duffy and Juraj Kucka respectively.
So extra-time it was, and in its first period, Ireland came extremely close to going ahead, Alan Browne foiled narrowly, twice. Not so much happened in the second period, which took us to penalties, and though Darren Randolph got close to saving a couple of Slovakia efforts, they scored four from four while Ireland’s Browne and Matt Doherty missed. When Ireland have time to take stock, they’ll find a number of positives to draw, but that won’t be for quite some time.
It’s been this way for a decade or more, but it’s impossible to look at any Ireland XI and not think ok, but where on earth are their goals going to come from? What’s different now, though, is that they’ve appointed a manager part of whose brief is to turn them into an attractive, enterprising team, so how on earth does he go about effecting that?
Well, if tonight was anything to go by, he’s on the right track. Alan Browne was excellent when he came on, doing more than well enough to keep his place in the side, while Callum O’Dowda, another sub, also has a bit of something. And, though Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly were missing with Troy Parrott not yet ready, they will help in time.
But perhaps Stephen Kenny should move to three at the back – he was unavailable tonight, but Seamus Coleman might work as the right-sided one, able to bring the ball forward and help his wing-back – which would be Matt Doherty, a fine finisher who is much more effective playing further forward. Three in midfield would allow Ireland to compete in that area, and two strikers would give opposing centre-backs more to think about than one David McGoldrick, who works hard but is barely any kind of goal threat.
James McCarthy of the Republic of Ireland
Image credit: Getty Images
MAN OF THE MATCH
Marek Hamsik (Slovakia) The best player on the pitch by far, prompting, fighting and cajoling, he also took the pressure first penalty brilliantly.
Slovakia: Rodak 7, Pekarik 6, Vavro 6, Valjent 5, Mazan 6, Kucka 6, Hrosovsky 5, Hamsik 8, Rusnak 7, Duda 7, Mihalik 6. Subs: Haraslin 7, Gyomber 6, Gregus 6, Bozenik 6, Mak 6.
Ireland: Randolph 6, Doherty 6, Duffy 7, Egan 6, Stevens 6, McCarthy 6, Horihane 6, Robinson 6, Hendrick 7, McClean 6, McGoldrick 7. Subs: Browne 7, Brady 6, O'Dowda 6, Long 6.
16’ - This what Ireland feared! They give Hamsik time on the ball 30 yards from goal and he curves a luscious pass in behind for Mihalik, who leaves Duffy standing. But there's just enough time for Randolph to get out to him before he shoots.
45’ - Slovakia break with Mihalik, sprinting down the right, and he finds Duda in the box, left-hand side, 15 yards out. He turns adroitly and opens his body to curl a fine, low effort towards the far corner ... but Randolph hurls himself left to tip it around the post! Excellent effort, excellent save.
45+1’ - The corner goes short and when the ball's swung in it arrives by Duda ... who hooks an acrobatic effort over his shoulder that skips just wide!
50’ - Eesh! Ireland win a free-kick out on the left and Hourihane curls in a brute, which bounces, and with no one wanting to chance a clearance, it bumps Hamsik and bobbles just wide.
70’ - Doherty nicks possession really smartly to set Ireland away, and Stevens, raiding down the left, sticks a cross over to Browne, on the far side. He's falling as he shoots but it's still a good chance and he still gets a decent lace on it ... but slicing across so the ball goes towards the near post, where Rodak is able to turn behind.
75’ - Aaarrrgggh! A brilliant pass from Hamsik finds Haraslin on the left of the box, and he cuts inside Doherty and might shoot, but opts to go another stride and drills a low one past Randolph ... but Duffy is on the line to stretch out a go-go gadget leg! Brilliant defending! But the ball's headed into Randolph's midriff ... but doesn't rebound with sufficient velocity to take it into the net.
85’ - Aaaaarrrrggggghhhh! What a let-off for Slovakia! Duffy finds McGoldrick who weaves beautifully and finds Robinson inside the box; he twists away from Rodak and finds Brady, who squares for Hourihane ... AND HE'S IN FRONT OF GOAL! YE'VE GOTTAE SCORE! But it's on his right foot, so instead of lamping it he just goes for a solid connection, allowing Kucka to kick off the line! What a chance that was!
91’ - Lovely from Ireland, Browne and Brady combining to find McGoldrick just outside the box, who explodes into a swivel and drives a riser that Rodak tips over!
104’ - Hourihane finds Stevens who slides down the left, where Bradh and O'Dowda exchange passes - that's lovely! - the latter crossing to the front post where Browne spins into a brilliant flick ... which hits the base of the post!
Ireland have played Slovakia six times, and this was the first time they've been beaten. Four of the games were drawn, and the other win, also by Slovakia, finished 1-0.