Ireland avoid relegation but fail to beat Bulgaria

UEFA Nations League – League B Group 4

Republic of Ireland 0-0 Bulgaria

Ireland failed to score, once again, as Stephen Kenny’s side played out a scoreless draw with Bulgaria in tonight’s UEFA Nations League encounter at the Aviva Stadium.

Robbie Brady’s 68th-minute strike cannoned off the crossbar, and that was the closest either side came to hitting the back of the net in this stalemate at an empty Lansdowne Road arena.

Scant consolation for Ireland, who avoided relegation as a result of gaining a point, however, that is seven games without a goal for Kenny’s side, who have yet to win a game since he took over as manager of the national side.

They were two much-changed sides from the first game in Sofia, which ended in a 1-1 draw in what was Kenny’s first game in charge, and it was the visitors who sprung into action inside the first minute as left-back Cicinho broke into the box before cutting it back to the arriving Bozhidar Kraev.

The big centre-forward looked to hit it first time, however, he scuffed his shot somewhat as Duffy closed him down, and Ireland eventually got on the loose ball to clear, with Ronan Curtis tracking back from the right flank.

And it was Bulgaria who set the tempo throughout the opening exchanges, playing neat ball thorough the middle, with Kraev cleverly dropping into space with Kristiyan Malinov – whose game was not unlike Ireland sub Jack Byrne – sitting deep, pulling strings.

Daryl Horgan jostles for possession with Cicinho.

It took Ireland 17 minutes to work a chance on goal as Curtis burst into the box, coming in from the right wing, cutting inside two Bulgaria defenders.

The Portsmouth forward smashed the ball across the face for the arriving Collins, however, a deflection took the ball past his outstretched foot and away for a corner.

But chances were limited as the half progressed, with the only real drama coming from two yellow cards for Kevin Long and debutant, Ryan Manning, the first for a stray arm in an aerial challenge and the other for a reckless tackle.

In the 27th minute, Ireland handed Bulgaria a great chance thanks to a stray Knight pass across the midfield.

Dimitar Iliev intercepted the under-hit ball and raced to the edge of the box before attempting to place the ball past Darren Randolph. The Ireland keeper read it well and got down to make the save.

Ireland started to look a bit livelier, bursting forward with intent as Knight, Curtis and Dara O’Shea all made inroads, helping the play on. And while a couple of good deliveries were sent into the box, nothing could be worked on target.

James Collins heads an effort over the bar from a Daryl Horgan cross.

But still Bulgaria pushed on, playing with freedom, looking dangerous with every foray forward, and Kristian Dimitrov worked a fine header on goal from a corner, but it just dipped over the bar.

A 37th-minute free-kick was whipped in on goal by Brady and it almost caught keeper Martin Lukov out as it evaded everyone, with the keeper eventually parrying clear.

Horgan and Curtis eventually switched flanks and for the first time, the Wycombe Wanderers winger made an impact, twisting and turning on the byline before lifting the ball in to the back post.

Collins connected; however, Curtis was perhaps better placed arriving late, but the ball could not be worked on target, and that was as close as Ireland came, with the game scoreless at the break.

Ireland came out for the second half with real intent and created three chances inside the opening ten minutes, with Collins, twice, failing to hit the target following fine deliveries from O’Shea – the second chance just zipping wide of the near post as the striker did well with the ball behind his body on arrival.

Curtis had the best opportunity to score as more great running from Knight set him up on the edge of the box, with space to shoot. The former Derry City man smashed it goalwards but the ball flew over without testing the keeper.

Ronan Curtis reacts after spurning a great opportunity sending the ball over the bar.

Yet for all Ireland’s attacking play, Bulgaria still looked dangerous and Kraev’s well-struck volley in the 60th minute reminded Ireland that they had to maintain their composure and avoid leaving gaping holes in defence.

In the 66th minute, Bulgaria should have taken the lead.

A corner dropped dangerously inside the box and right at the feet of Dimitrov, six yards out. The big centre-half looked to scoop the ball home but for a timely deflection to guide it to safety.

Two minutes later, Brady danced into space, coming in off the right flank and onto his favoured left foot.

Robbie Brady produced Ireland’s best chance – a shot that rattled the woodwork.

Brady ripped it perfectly off his instep but watched the ball crash off the bar and away from the goal. Six and a half games without a goal, that would have been the perfect way to break that particular unwanted record.

Josh Cullen and Jack Byrne replaced Horgan and Brady as Ireland went in search of a winner and a rare ramble up the pitch for Conor Hourihane led to an exceptional delivery in from the left, which just needed a touch to work the ball home.

Knight raced into the six-yard box but was mere inches from guiding the ball home.

The manager then rolled the dice by throwing Troy Parrott and Sean Maguire into the attack as he went in search of his first victory, yet knowing that a Bulgaria goal would relegate his side from League B.

Parrott was immediately involved, leading a break from the right side of defence, bringing Byrne, Maguire and Hourihane into the attack. However, the best they could conjure was a corner, which failed to create anything on goal.

Five minutes of injury time added, but Ireland could not break through, with Maguire’s chance at the back post the nearest they came to grabbing that elusive win for the manager who must now wait through the winter and into the 2021 campaign to record his first victory.

Republic of Ireland: Darren Randolph; Ryan Manning (Cyrus Christie 85), Kevin Long, Shane Duffy, Dara O’Shea; Conor Hourihane, Jason Knight, Robbie Brady (Jack Byrne 78); Ronan Curtis (Troy Parrott 85), Daryl Horgan (Josh Cullen 67), James Collins (Sean Maguire 85).

Bulgaria: Martin Lukov (GK); Strahil Popov (capt), Georgi Angelov, Kristian Dimitrov, Cicinho (Aleksandar Vasilev 61); Kristiyan Malinov, Aleksandar Tsvetkov, Spas Delev (Svetoslav Kovachev 61), Galin Ivanov (Birsent Karagaren 61), Dimitar Iliev (Denislav Aleksandrov 81); Bozhidar Kraev

Referee: Lawrence Visser (BEL)

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