Republic of Ireland fell to a disappointing 2-1 loss at the hands of Belarus on Tuesday in their final friendly before Euro 2016.
The hosts had lost just one of their previous 13 matches, but a weakened line-up in Cork was deservedly beaten by goals from Mikhail Hardzeichuk and Maksim Valadzko.
Stephen Ward offered a sell-out crowd some hope when he pulled one back, but it arrived too late for Ireland to avoid defeat.
Manager Martin O’Neill made 11 changes from the team that drew 1-1 with the Netherlands on Friday. With Harry Arter believed to already be ruled out and James McCarthy and Robbie Keane potentially set to miss the tournament through injury, this was an opportunity for many to impress.
However, after 20 minutes of toil, Ireland fell behind.
With the hosts pushing forward on the left, Belarus stole possession and attacked in numbers. When the ball finally made its way across to Hardzeichuk on the edge of the box, he steadied to curl a delicious finish high beyond Shay Given.
Though David Meyler responded with a thumping effort straight at the goalkeeper, the visitors immediately broke again on the left, with Valadzko’s centre hacked clear by Ciaran Clark.
While Belarus were beaten 3-0 by Northern Ireland last week, they had previously been on a run of keeping five consecutive clean sheets, and they were now dominating O’Neill’s timid side.
With 10 minutes remaining of the first half, Valadzko dashed forward again and would have added a second with his firm strike but for Given’s superb diving intervention.
Ireland should have been level within seconds of the restart for the second half as Aiden McGeady jinked away down the right to cross onto Daryl Murphy’s head, but the forward nodded over from point-blank range.
Another delivery from a similar position, this time provided by Cyrus Christie, was then flicked straight at the goalkeeper by Clark.
An aerial attack seemed to be the most likely route through for Ireland, as Syarhey Chernik was forced to stop Clark’s header from a corner, and then Jeff Hendrick’s rebound.
Despite all the home pressure, it was Belarus who extended their lead in the 63rd minute.
Valadzko had been enjoying himself up against Christie, and he again danced inside and shot low into the net via a deflection.
But just when the result seemed gone for the Irish, substitute Shane Long’s influence pulled them back into the game.
His immediate impact was to tee up Ward to lash home and make it 2-1 on 72 minutes, and the Southampton forward almost equalised soon afterwards with a drive at Chernik.
James McClean then cushioned a volley over from the middle of the area, before Eunan O’Kane sliced a loose ball into the stands from further out.
Ireland continued to pen Belarus into their box in the closing stages, but there was no further breakthrough, sending O’Neill’s men into their Euros opener against Sweden in Paris on June 13 off the back of a defeat.
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