Ukraine 1 Ireland 1
The future is now. Mark the date. This was the night Nathan Collins entered the collective consciousness of Irish sport. The 21-year-old always had the pedigree, now we have the proof of a wonder goal and some outstanding late interventions to secure a valuable result.
“Nathan has established himself,” said Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. “He has been exceptional in all four games. His decision making is outstanding.
“A special goal away from home, a really special goal.”
Perhaps the unfixable problem for Ireland under Kenny is that they run out of ideas without the cushion of a first-half goal. The style, regardless of changing formation to 3-5-2, is overwhelmingly dependent on an early lead to keep the other nine outfield players revolving around Josh Cullen.
Cullen, vicious and commanding in the same breath, has become indispensable to the cause. As is Collins in Shane Duffy’s position. The passing of the torch happened before our eyes as the Leixlip man put Ireland’s international fortunes on his back with a goal for the ages.
Even at 1-0, it seemed like Ukraine were fattening Irish lambs for the slaughter as the 10,641 crowd were baying for blood on every counter attack. The 700 Irish fans refused to be drowned out but the occasion felt more important than a Nations League tie in June.
Caoimhín Kelleher was also in the thick of it with another coming of age performance. Twice in the opening 20 minutes Ukraine burst into his box only for the Cork stopper to prove his worth, first with an excellent parry of Ruslan Malinovskyi hit before denying Everton’s Vitaliy Mylenko with his feet.
Ukraine should have led 2-0, or at least 2-1 as Troy Parrott failed to repeat last Saturday’s headed heroics after a lofted Jason Knight cross to the back post. The Spurs striker could only laugh at himself for missing the target entirely.
It felt costly but The Nathan Collins Show was only warming up. World class strikers are realising the pointlessness of trying to out sprint the Burnley centre half, never mind contesting with his large frame in the air.
But the story of the game was fast becoming how slick Ukraine were in possession. How Mykola Shaparenko and Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko kept creeping possession closer and closer to a callow Irish defence. How Jayson Molumby and Jason Knight were chasing shadows. How Scott Hogan and Parrott seemed so maddeningly ineffective.
Despite being constantly outnumbered by blue shirts, Cullen was immense. Just ask Malinovskyi who came off worse from a 50-50 clash. After hobbling around for five minutes he limped off with a damaged hip. Cullen also rammed into Mykolenko but it was finger in the dyke stuff, Ireland needed someone to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Someone to match the contribution of the injured Michael Obafemi against Scotland.
Cherry Orchard’s finest accepted the challenge. After winning a dangerous high ball aimed at Artem Dovbyk, Collins figured Ukraine out. From the next attack, Shaparenko went for the direct pass down the middle but, reading the attack, Collins strode ahead of Dovbyk, eased past Zinchenko, beat Sydorchuk with sheer momentum before cutting inside Zabarnyi and rattling the net using the outside of his right boot.
As Collins wheeled away in delight, everyone realised they had just witnessed an Irish goal to rank among the best ever scored.
“Nathan just loves dribbling with the ball,” said Kenny.
So angry were the Ukrainians with Ireland tearing up their script that they almost willed an equaliser into existence. Oleksandr Karavaev skied an opportunity as the game transformed into an end to end extravaganza, as Knight’s tame shot was easily gathered by Dmytro Riznyk.
Ukraine thundered into the second half as a simple switch of play caught Ireland cold. When Shaparenko found Yarmolenko wide right, McClean was caught too far up field and while the skipper sprinted back, the West Ham United winger picked a killer assist for the unmarked Dovbyk to score.
Kenny spoke this week about Ireland being better suited to a referee who lets men be men in the tackle. Turkish official Ali Palabiyik appears to have read the memo but even he felt Yarmolenko deserved a yellow card for slashing Cullen’s lower limb. The pair slapped hands and got back to work.
Callum Robinson’s arrival for the ineffective Hogan saw Parrott ease into a more central attacking position and he snatched at a shot as Ireland inched back into the contest. Knight also found his range from distance, but could not inject any venom into his shots.
Ukraine dropped deep but it was a ruse. At every opportunity they stormed forward, trusting that their technical superiority would eventually tell.
As the hour mark came and went it increasingly felt like Chiedozie Ogbene would revel in the physicality but Kenny turned to Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick, presumably thinking they would get hold of possession and keep it for longer than a few seconds.
Ogbene eventually replaced Parrott but a point shared felt right on the night. Ukrainians howling in the stands might disagree, but for every late counter attack there stood Collins, calmly toe poking or heading to safety attempts by Mykhailo Mudryk or Yarmolenko to walk in a winner.
For Ukraine, both players and fans being refugees in Poland, this was about more than a football match. For Ireland it was only about the football match and a result that keeps them clinging to contention in Group 1.
Ukraine: Riznyk (Vorskla Poltava); Karavaev (Dynamo Kyiv), Zabarnyi (Dynamo Kyiv), Matviyenko (Shakhtar Donetsk), Mykolenko (Everton); Malinovskyi (Atalanta), Sydorchuk (Dynamo Kyiv), Zinchenko (Manchester City); Yarmolenko (West Ham United, c), Dovbyk (Dnipro-1), Shaparenko (Dynamo Kyiv).
Subs: Mudryk (Shakhtar Donetsk) for Malinovskyi (28), Sikan (Shakhtar Donetsk) for Dovbyk, Popov (Dynamo Kyiv) for Matviyenko (both 73)
Republic of Ireland: Kelleher (Liverpool); O’Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Collins (Burnley), Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers) O’Shea (West Bromwich Albion); Browne (Preston North End), Cullen (Anderlecht), Molumby (West Bromwich Albion), Knight (Derby County), McClean (Wigan Athletic, c); Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur), Hogan (Birmingham City).
Subs: Robinson (West Bromwich Albion) for Hogan (56), Hourihane for Knight, Hendrick for Molumby (both 67), Ogbene for Parrott (80)
Referee: Ali Palabiyik (Turkey)