Ireland 3-1 Bulgaria
Mick McCarthy’s men left it late, once again, as Ireland secured a 3-1 victory over Bulgaria in tonight’s friendly international at the Aviva Stadium.
Following a first-half stalemate, Alan Browne was in the right place to tap home to hand Ireland the lead in the 56th minute, before Bulgaria levelled matters eleven minutes later from the penalty spot.
But two late goals, first from a Kevin Long header and then a debut goal for James Collins saw Ireland finish the international break with a victory ahead of two important Euro 2020 qualifiers in October.
Ten changes from the side that earned a valuable point against Switzerland, coupled with nine for the visitors following their defeat to England, the game had a reserve-team fixture feel about it, complemented by the fact that the home crowd had apparently failed to show up at the Lansdowne Road arena.
Despite the lack of atmosphere – the official capacity less than 20,000 – Ireland went on the attack from the opening exchanges, knocking the ball about at pace as Callum O’Dowda roamed freely across the midfield, while Josh Cullen was showing for the ball as he sat in, looking to pull the strings.
Ronan Curtis looked lively on the left, while rookie defender Conor Hourihane assessed the situation from his experimental role at full back.
Captain John Egan initially looked calm and composed stepping into midfield to link play but just five minutes into the contest, Bulgaria showed they were looking to spring on the counter-attack as Nikolay Dimitrov was played in over the top.
Egan’s high line had left the space in behind, however, the Sheffield United defender got back to send his man away from goal, resulting in a tame effort that Mark Travers watched over the bar.
Ireland maintained their dominance in the opening 15 minutes, however, two Bulgaria corners caused some concern as first Georgi Pashov and then Kristian Dimitrov won free headers, but neither threatened to break the deadlock.
Ireland’s first real opening arrived in the 14th minute as O’Dowda whipped a ball into the box, and while Alan Judge made good contact with his header, the looping effort was always falling the wrong side of the crossbar.
Then a good move, started and finished by Judge, as Scott Hogan was sent clear in the 17th minute.
The Stoke City man had to check his run, waiting on support to arrive. A square ball found Cullen in the middle, which was then played back into the path of the arriving Judge, but his side-footed effort was deflected and failed to hit the target.
Ireland kept pressing and the defensive line stayed high, but for all their possession, the quality of the final ball was lacking, with several attempts to infiltrate the final third either squandered or intercepted; Judge’s creativity on the ball yet to be utilised.
The Hourihane experiment remained a curiosity, however, and a forward foray midway through the half resulted in the Villa man getting free in the box, following some clever play by Curtis – but again the ball across the face was unable to find a target
Bulgaria kept Ireland honest with some pacey counter-attacking play and only for the alert Cullen, Daniel Mladenov would have been through on goal in the 33rd minute following a good through-ball from Bozhidar Kraev.
The lively centre-forward, who had done well leading the line on his own, then showed for the corner but his shot was deflected wide.
Five minutes before the break, Curtis aimed a careless shot from distance, which appeared to highlight the frustration creeping in.
Moments before the break, Curtis managed to block a cross before working his way towards the edge of the box.
More composed this time, the Portsmouth man lifted a clever ball to the near post, almost finding Scott Hogan, who had made a dart across his defender.
The striker missed it but the keeper had to be alert to prevent the ball creeping in at the corner.
No changes at the break for Ireland, the game was crying out for some quality to liven up proceedings, and finally the breakthrough came in the 56th minute as McCarthy’s side took the lead.
More emphasis on attack, Ireland got numbers into the Bulgaria half before Curtis was played in as he cut in off the left flank.
A fine shot, low to the keeper’s near post was fumbled, allowing Hogan to race in and help the ball across the face of the goal where Browne arrived to finish.
Jack Byrne and James Collins were sent on for their respective international debuts, drawing a great cheer from the crowd occupying the stand were once stood the south terrace.
Four minutes later, Byrne picked the ball up 40 yards from goal.
“Shoot,” bayed the crowd. The former Manchester City man obliged but smashed his low effort wide of the post.
Bulgaria got back into the game following a mistake at the back by Cyrus Christie who attempted to take the ball down just outside the area.
The Fulham man was dispossessed by Kraev who then drew the foul from the recovering Egan, and the referee had no hesitation pointing to the spot.
Captain Ivelin Popov, who had been introduced at half-time, made no mistake with the spot-kick, smashing the ball out of the reach of Travers.
A spate of substitutions brought the game to a pedestrian pace for ten minutes after the Bulgaria goal, but Ireland were starting to get back on top with Byrne looking to create, while the addition of James McClean and Enda Stevens were giving a more familiar look to the side, especially down the left flank.
Good link-up play by new-man Collins forced a corner and Ireland went back ahead from the resulting set-piece as Kevin Long nodded home at the far post.
Buoyed by the goal, Ireland maintained the attack and Byrne again showed his class by spotting a Stevens run, as Shamrock Rovers past and present combined before the latter sent a fantastic first-time ball across the face of the goal.
Fellow sub Collins launched himself at the arriving ball and was rewarded for his endeavours as he got a vital touch to take the ball past the diving keeper.
In the final minute, the home crowd were treated to Byrne’s trademark corner-kick run-up, which almost resulted in a fourth as Egan arrived right on cue, but his header flew inches over the bar.
Two minutes of additional time yielded little and while Ireland laboured for large chunks of this friendly encounter, the manager will certainly have taken some heart from another spirited finish to secure the victory.
Ireland: Mark Travers (Kieran O’Hara 76); Cyrus Christie, John Egan, Kevin Long, Conor Hourihane (James McClean 69); Alan Browne, Josh Cullen; Alan Judge (Jack Byrne 60), Callum O’Dowda (Enda Stevens 76), Ronan Curtis (Jeff Hendrick 83); Scott Hogan (James Collins 60)
Bulgaria: Hristo Ivanov; Ivan Goranov, Anton Nedyalkov (Vasil Bozhikov 59), Kristian Dimitrov (Vasil Panayotov 80), Georgi Pashov; Simeon Slavchev, Daniel Mladenov (Kiril Despodov 68), Georgi Milanov (Ivelin Popov HT), Kristiyan Malinov (Georgi Terziev 81), Nikolay Dimitrov (Wanderson 59); Bozhidar Kraev
Referee: Tobias Welz (GER)
Venue: Aviva Stadium