Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Evan Ferguson misses penalty as Ireland fail to take chances in Belgium draw

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 23 Mar 2024

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Evan Ferguson missed a penalty as the Republic of Ireland passed up the opportunity to hand interim head coach John O’Shea a notable scalp against Belgium.

The Brighton striker, who reported for international duty without a goal in 20 games for his club, saw his first-half spot-kick saved by Nottingham Forest keeper Matz Sels to ensure the friendly contest at a blustery Aviva Stadium ended 0-0.

Belgium enjoyed the greater share of the possession, but it was Ireland who created the better chances with debutant Sammie Szmodics going to close.

If O’Shea, who will remain in charge for Tuesday’s friendly against Switzerland, was left to reflect upon what might have been, he could not have been disappointed with the organisation and endeavour of his players.

Previous Ireland boss Stephen Kenny wanted his young team team to play an expansive brand of football, but their efforts failed to yield results – they won only six of 29 competitive games under his charge.

O’Shea did what Kenny’s most recent predecessors had also attempted and as a first requirement, made his side difficult to beat, relying on the physicality of Ferguson and the pace of Chiedozie Ogbene to get them up the field.

In the event, Ireland looked far less vulnerable at the back and forged a series of opportunities which might have won them the game against a side ranked fourth in the world by FIFA, albeit one shorn of many of its superstars.

In-form Blackburn striker Szmodics almost got them off to the perfect start with just three minutes gone when, after Ferguson had made life difficult for defender Wout Faes, Josh Cullen slipped the ball into his path and he in turn played it in behind for Chiedozie Ogbene to chase.

Ogbene raced clear and drew Sels, but ultimately planted his left-foot shot into the side-netting.

Belgium, with 19-year-old Atletico Madrid midfielder Arthur Vermeeren prominent, settled into their passing game, but Ireland were compact in a 5-4-1 formation without the ball and openings proved few and far between.

However, O’Shea’s men were handed a gilt-edged chance to take the lead when Vermeeren was adjudged to have handled as Dara O’Shea tried to help Nathan Collins’ knock-down into the danger area and referee Rohit Saggi pointed to the spot.

Ferguson stepped up after a lengthy wait, but slipped as he made contact with the ball and saw Sels save his 28th-minute penalty with his legs.

Ogbene dragged a right-foot shot across the face of goal seconds later and Ireland went close again in the final minute of the half when Ferguson climbed highest to flick on keeper Caoimhin Kelleher’s long clearance and Szmodics held off full-back Timothy Castagne before firing over.

Seamus Coleman’s task grew in intensity after the restart after Belgium boss sent on Manchester City’s Jeremy Doku as a replacement for Leandro Trossard, but it was the hosts who went close within seconds.

Once again, Ferguson towered above the visitors’ defence to meet Robbie Brady’s inviting cross six yards out, but he could not keep his powerful header down.

Kelleher, preferred to Gavin Bazunu, needed two attempts to claim a 50th-minute Lois Openda snapshot, but opposite number Sels was happy to see Brady’s free-kick sail over his crossbar on the swirling wind four minutes later.

Szmodics saw a 67th-minute shot blocked by Amadou Onana as Ireland continued to press, but it took a good save by Kelleher to keep out Thomas Meunier’s strike after fellow substitute Dodi Lukebakio had broken free down the right and pulled the ball back 15 minutes from time.

Doku whistled a right-foot shoot just over and Openda saw optimistic appeals for a penalty waved away after colliding with Kelleher, and the game ultimately ended all square.

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