Looking up at the electronic scoreboard in the Opap Arena, which showed 2-1 to Greece, you saw the logo of sponsors Callista, manufacturers of handbags and accessories. The word couldn’t help but remind you of Calista, the luxury hotel chain that hosted the Irish team during their recent warm-weather training camp near Antalya in Turkey.
Ireland was probably able to take advantage of a group discount, but if you fancy staying there next week it will cost you nearly €700 per person. night. Maybe next time we should just ask the players to fly in on the day. We wanted to save a lot of money, and the result could hardly be worse.
Previous disappointments away from home in the Stephen Kenny era have had something to commend them or at least to mitigate them – gutsy performances, unfortunate injuries, empty stadiums etc. It was just awful.
A team selection that didn’t work and had to be changed at half-time, supposed faithful crumbling under pressure, our great attacking hopes struggling on the periphery, unable to enter oblivion, all finished with a red card at the end for one of the most experienced players in the squad. Neither players nor coach come forward with any credit.
There were thousands of empty yellow seats at Opap, illustrating the current Greek indifference to a national team that has disappointed them by failing to qualify for anything for almost a decade. These Greek fans are hard to please. Based on the first 15 minutes of this game, Greece would easily win the Champions League if only the cowards at Uefa would let them in.
At the end of a miserable night, Matt Doherty was confusingly sent off, apparently for bumping into a Greek player who had roughed up Michael Obafemi.
At least that’s how good Ireland made them look. The first chance came after just a few minutes, Ireland right wing-back Doherty trailing a man inside, leaving Tsimikas with plenty of space to pick out a man at the far post. Bazunu saved to concede the first of seven corners that Greece would win in the first 10 minutes.
The Ireland goalkeeper, who has endured a difficult first season in the Premier League with now-relegated Southampton, saved his side in those minutes as Greece hammered shot after shot against a punch-drunk Ireland who appeared to have no idea , how to stem the flow. The crowd responded as they realized Ireland were there to welcome and sure enough, after 15 minutes Greece got the breakthrough.
The day before the game, Stephen Kenny had spoken of how Callum O’Dowda was a “traditional” winger who has learned to play wing back. On this display, he urgently needs to go back to the wing-back school. The penalty he gave away wouldn’t have been a penalty before the introduction of VAR as the referee didn’t see it. But if you raise your hand to head level and block a cross, the camera will always catch you. It’s hard to have sympathy for defenders who know this and keep doing it anyway.
The penalty was the culmination of a generally awful start for Ireland, but in a strange way it helped them settle. The referees took so long to award the penalty that when the game restarted at 1-0, Greece had lost their rhythm and Ireland had regained some composure.
In the 28th minute, Ireland’s best move of the game culminated in a corner on the left. Smallbone crossed, Ferguson won it at the near post and Collins finished at the back. VAR corrected the linesman’s offside call and out of nowhere Ireland were level.
You felt this was more than Ireland deserved, an impression supported by some of the half-time stats. Josh Cullen completed 57 percent of his passes in the first half. You can’t win many games at this level with a defensive midfielder who performs like that. Smallbone had 60 per cent. No Greek player completed fewer than 75 percent of their passes, and nine of the 11 were over 80 percent.
Kostas Tsimikas had been the dominant player in the game and nobody in Ireland’s system picked him up. His counterpart, Matt Doherty, had no impact. Mistake a pass in every third and struggle. Dara O’Shea was left out of the starting line-up despite being in “brilliant condition” because he had not played since March. Yet Doherty has played just 18 minutes of club football since joining Atlético Madrid in January.
As for Adam Idah, it was hard to understand what he was supposed to be doing out there. Kenny has always been a big supporter of Idah, who did some great things for him in the U21s, but this is senior level and it’s hard to see why Kenny chose him here ahead of Michael Obafemi, who has not only scored some goals for Ireland but has also demonstrated an ability to create for others, as with the chances he laid on for Troy Parrott against Scotland.
Removing Idah at half-time was an admission that his selection had been a mistake. In came Mikey Johnston, who has produced some exciting runs in his limited time so far. Four minutes later, Johnston was off the hook as Greece scored what proved to be the winner through Matsouras.
At the end of a miserable night, Matt Doherty was confusedly sent off, apparently for bumping into a Greek player who had roughed up Michael Obafemi.
Doherty’s fight is symbolic of the fading promise of the Kenny regime. When the manager took over in 2020, Doherty, who had been marginalized by Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy, was expected to be one of the biggest benefits. As it turns out, Doherty has played fewer minutes of league football in the three seasons since Kenny became Ireland manager than in the single season before he arrived. Sometimes things don’t go as you had hoped.