Stephen Kenny has challenged the Republic of Ireland to end a disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign in style with victory in Luxembourg to cement their ongoing improvement.
Ireland extended their recent run to just one defeat in nine games in all competitions with a creditable 0-0 draw against Group A favourites Portugal in Dublin on Thursday evening, and will head for Luxembourg knowing victory will secure third place, no major prize, but a sign of progress after a difficult start to qualification.
Kenny said: “From my point of view, I know there’s nothing in it in terms of it doesn’t help us in the European Championships, it doesn’t affect the seeding or anything like that, but from a personal pride point of view, apart from the 97th-minute goal that Ronaldo got, it’s nine matches with one defeat.
“We look defensively better now, we’re not giving up many chances and three clean sheets in the last three games, so of course we want to go to Luxembourg and win, of course we do.
“But tonight is about tonight and tonight, I thought, was of a very, very high standard technically for 65 minutes, maybe and a good defensive display for 90 minutes.”
Ireland claimed their sixth point of the campaign in their penultimate fixture when they managed to keep Cristiano Ronaldo, whose heroics had rescued Portugal in Faro in September, relatively quiet.
He sent a 67th-minute header which appeared less taxing than the two he scored at the Estadio Algarve wide and having later fired across the face of goal, was denied by Gavin Bazunu’s legs after breaking clear on the right in the sixth minute of stoppage time.
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Ireland created little of note – Josh Cullen might have done better with a second-half shot – until a late flurry after defender Pepe had been sent off for a second bookable offence, although thought they had won it when Matt Doherty stabbed home, only for Spanish referee Jesus Gil Manzano to rule it out for a foul by substitute Will Keane on keeper Rui Patricio.
The whistle had gone before Doherty struck, but Kenny said: “We were disappointed to see a legitimate goal disallowed. We’ve looked at it and it’s clearly legitimate, there’s no foul, so no reason to be ruled out, so we’re disappointed with that.
“Second half, I thought we were the better team, we played the better football overall and played very well in the second half. Obviously Portugal were still dangerous because their players are so good.”
The clean sheet was Ireland’s third in as many games and was achieved with a back three in which Everton full-back Seamus Coleman partnered Shane Duffy and John Egan.
Kenny said: “I know Callum [Robinson] got man of the match – I’d have probably given it to Shane Duffy on his performance. Probably technically, it’s the best I’ve ever seen him play in terms of his range of passing, and the quality and weight of his passing was really, really good.
“I know he’s always been a good defender, but… and I thought Seamus was very, very good, and John Egan. The back three collectively were excellent.”
Portugal climbed to the top of the group on goal difference as a result of the draw and will claim automatic qualification if they avoid defeat against Serbia on Sunday.