Stephen Kenny’s first home match ends in Nations League defeat to Finland

For a variety of reasons, this was not the Aviva Stadium introduction that Stephen Kenny had in mind.

his defeat to Finland is a reminder that a team described as a work in progress needs a lot of work.

Granted, there were chances squandered that might have changed the scoreline but that doesn’t disguise issues that were evident in this fixture with a Finland side that has already qualified for the Euros looking sharper than an Irish group who need to advance from this double header to a crunch tie in Bratislava next month.

Kenny might have been presented with more questions than answers from this exercise with that test in mind.


Ireland’s David McGoldrick and Finland’s Nicholas Hamalainen battle for the ball during the UEFA Nations League Group 4, League B match at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA Wire

Within seconds of full-time, it was deathly silent around Dublin 4 with Kenny and his assistant Keith Andrews deep in conversation on the sideline.

The players are all accustomed to closed doors football with their respective clubs, yet there was something especially surreal about this occasion, with the international matchday experience and the anthems and the ceremony and all that goes with it almost feeling like a dress rehearsal for the real thing when playing out in front of an empty stadium.

It’s veering into excuse territory to point to that as a reason for lethargy, but there’s no doubt that Aviva’s cavernous features enhance the discomfort.

Finland settled into the game better, retaining a 3-5-2 formation they experimented with in their luckless defeat to Wales earlier in the week. They were assured in the opening minutes, while Ireland were slow to find their way.

Kenny had hinted that he might freshen things up, and he was clearly specifically referring to the midfield department as it was the only area that he touched with James McCarthy, Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick replaced in their respective roles by Harry Arter, Robbie Brady and debutant Jayson Molumby. The defence and attack were unchanged.

Arter was cast in the McCarthy role as the holding player, with Brady and Molumby encouraged to get around the park.

The difficulty was that Finland had good spells of possession that did move Ireland around and they created an early opening that was eerily similar to the Bulgarian goal during the week with the back four and the high defensive line exposed with a couple of routine passes.

Robert Taylor cut inside into space and found a hole to release Teemu Pukki with a combination of a weak shot and strong reactions from Darren Randolph preventing Finland from going ahead.

That was a let off, yet there were other moments where Finland weren’t necessarily able to capitalise on promising situations.

Goalkeeper Darren Randolph was audible throughout, encouraging full backs Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens get tighter to centre halves on occasion but they also had to be aware of diagonal balls to the wing backs that placed the emphasis on Brady or Molumby to cover ground.

Ireland steadied the ship somewhat and had a reasonable passage leading to the interval. Adam Idah was working hard in his attempts to lead the line without gaining much joy and an issue was that Aaron Connolly and Callum O’Dowda were finding it hard to truly impose in general play.

There was a lot of play centred down the left side, where there were passages that highlighted that Connolly has actually played most of his club football in a different position.

Clearly, there was an attempt to get him more involved from the restart and he was involved in bright passages prior to an O’Dowda shot that actually brought the Bristol City player’s evening to a premature end.

Callum Robinson came in, before Finland made the change that prompted the breaking the deadlock.

Ireland were caught napping as Fredrik Jensen was introduced with Arter’s exuberance resulting in the loss of possession from a throw with Brady and Molumby caught in an awkward position as Jensen nipped in to feed Pukki and then race into the box with Taylor stepping in for the assist as Duffy called for offside and an inviting cross was converted by the sub with green shirts all at sea.

Brady was starting to look fatigued at this juncture and a feature of the remainder of the game was how Finland began to work opportunities in that area of the pitch. They could have added to their advantage with better finishing.

That said, Ireland really should have levelled in the minutes that followed the introduction of David McGoldrick to replace Idah.

Connolly fluffed his lines from one cross, Robinson was denied by Lukas Hradecky after good build-up play from Doherty and then pressure on the Finns in their own box gave the ponderous McGoldrick a chance but Juhani Ojala covered to close the door.

Kenny’s side were incapable of building on that momentum, though, despite the introduction of James McClean for Connolly and they were reliant on a smart stop from Randolph to stop Nikolai Alho from doubling the lead with Ireland stretched.

There was a late rally from the hosts with Arter threatening and forcing a corner that Brady sent perfectly in the direction of Duffy.

Unlike Thursday, he couldn’t convert and Kenny tasted defeat that will provide food for thought heading into next month.

Online Editors

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