Just as in Dublin last month, Fredrik Jensen scored to give Finland victory over the Republic of Ireland. And just as in all of Stephen Kenny’s five matches in charge, the Irish could find positives amid a disappointing result. Despite being depleted, Kenny’s side served up another witty yarn. They just to need to work on their punchlines.
Irritatingly for Kenny, Finland struck moments after Enda Stevens had come within inches of breaking Ireland’s scoring duck and, even worse, directly from a mix-up in the visiting defence. Until the sloppy goalkick by Darren Randolph that led to Jensen’s close-range goal, Ireland had passed pretty well and shown further shoots of progress under their new manager. But still no shots into a net.
At least the 7,000 home spectators who were allowed into Helsinki’s 40,000-capacity Olympic stadium got something to cheer from a match that did not exactly have them on the edge of their seats.
Despite being shorn of 13 squad members because of Covid-19, injuries and suspension, Kenny’s side pressed dynamically and passed with confidence and, for the most part, competence. A few individuals stood out, including Dara O’Shea, who was making his senior debut at centre-back after being drafted in from the Under-21s, as well as Daryl Horgan and Jayson Molumby.
Jeff Hendrick also had a good game but should have brought a smile to Irish faces in the 13th minute but his low shot was blocked by Jere Uronen.
Although Ireland generally had the better of the play, the hosts created the clearest chances in the first half. Teemu Pukki should have left Randolph helpless in the 37th minute when he was put through after lovely skill by Pyry Soiri. From the right-hand corner of the six-yard box the Norwich striker fired wide of the far post.
Aaron Connolly, who returned to the Irish lineup after last week’s false test fiasco, did well on the left-hand side of the Irish attack. The 20-year-old tricked his way past Tim Sparv on the half-hour before forcing Lukas Hradecky into a save from 20 yards. Then, in the 37th minute, Connolly slipped a clever pass into Sean Maguire, who would have had a clear shot from 10 yards if he had not miscontrolled. Maguire worked hard at centre-forward but had neither the sharpness nor imposing presence that Ireland needed.
Kenny rejigged his attack in the 53rd minute, when he replaced Maguire with Robbie Brady and shifted Connolly to the middle. Proof of Ireland’s adventurous intent came in the 63rd minute when their left-back, Stevens, poked a bouncing ball against the Finnish crossbar from eight yards following a bold run by Hendrick. Moments later the visitors’ other full-back, Matt Doherty, joined in the attack to fire wide from 18 yards.
That promise was undone when Ireland made a mess of trying to play out of their own box, Pukki pouncing on a loose pass by Randolph before Jensen prodded into the net. Hradecky, produced fine saves from Doherty and Ronan Curtis to protect Finland’s lead.