Ireland 2 Belgium 2
A result that can be neatly filed away in the progressive cabinet. Chiedozie Ogbene scored one equaliser before creating another for Alan Browne late on to maintain the upward trajectory of this Republic of Ireland team.
Goals by Michy Batshuayi, in for the rested Romelu Lukaku, and Hans Vanaken, covering the injured Eden Hazard, had initially exposed the difference between a country that has nurtured its underage talent with a clear plan for 20 years and, well, Ireland.
But that’s not how this story goes. Irish manager Stephen Kenny must be applauded for picking the right subs at the right time with Browne’s power header on 85 minutes feeling like a winner.
It all came from newly reliable creative forces. The outstanding Matt Doherty fed Ogbene for a perfectly weighted delivery as Browne kept Kenny’s charges unbeaten in seven matches dating back to Cristiano Ronaldo’s winner in Portugal last September.
What a foundation stone that miserable night on the Algarve has proved.
“The volatility and unpredictability of life itself has never been more evident in recent times,” began Kenny’s programme notes. He was not referring to his 21 games in charge, rather the pandemic and “war in Europe,” but the sentiment held.
Next up it’s Lithuania on Tuesday with Saturday’s 48,808 attendance in with a chance of being replicated after this feel good result.
Who doesn’t love a team on the up? Especially a team that constantly seeks to play football and hunts possession like starving wolves.
Belgium, playing without Kevin De Bruyne and other 50-cap veterans, took their first goal in stride as Batshuayi exposed Seamús Coleman’s selection on the right of three centre-halves.
Jamie Carragher recently declared Coleman to be passed his sell-by-date as a Premier League fullback. "People are just running in behind him," said the Champions League winning defender. On 12 minutes Belgium's lone striker ran straight across the 33 year-old Ireland skipper before curling a shot into the far corner of Caoimhín Kelleher's net.
Batshuayi picked up Vanaken’s ball, taking three touches before silencing the sun-kissed crowd with his 23rd international goal from 40 caps. Chelsea can call him home from Turkish champions Besiktas any time their scoring stocks need replenishing.
Belgium never contemplated an Irish inclination over the past 101 years to go into their shell and defend a one-nil lead. If employed correctly, the 3-4-2-1 system doesn’t allow this to happen as the front three should become defensive scramblers as soon as possession is lost.
Jason Knight, for example, gave a masterclass in selfless, high-energy play.
Anthony Barry was credited, perhaps too much, with drilling the same formation into Irish football which made the sight of him on the big screen in Belgium garb a little depressing if not for the crowd’s reaction. The booing was probably directed more at Barry’s new coaching partner Thierry Henry as the memory of his Parisian handball sparked mock-fury from the masses.
Coincidence or not, the increased noise decibels appeared to prompt the Irish attack into action with James McClean’s shot on 33 minutes creating the first Lansdowne Roar of the evening.
The place was only warming up as Josh Cullen’s high corner seemingly came to nothing. But the intent was visible in Doherty keeping play alive as Ogbene was mere seconds away from becoming an overnight success at age 24.
The first Irish equaliser came out of improved protection of possession high up the pitch, with the ball eventually falling for Callum Robinson, who aimed a chip at Shane Duffy’s head. Youri Tielemans crowded out the big Derry man but Ogbene gathered the break and, with his back to goal, took a casual touch before overhead-kicking his third international goal.
Both wing backs, Doherty and McClean, deserve credit for subtle contributions that allowed Robinson and Ogbene to cause chaos in the world number one team’s ranks but John Egan was the towering figure, raiding from deep like a bygone Kerry wing back.
Ogbene started to power through the centre, with Robinson dropping into his favourite inside left slot, as a clever pass forced Arthur Theate to hack down the Rotherham United wing-back cum centre forward.
Ogbene will become a bankable star as soon as he escapes the third tier of English football.
Coleman was never going to go quietly and one from Robinson, Knight and McClean should have rewarded his pick-pocketing of Vanaken seconds into in the second half. Granted, Tieleman’s last ditch slide denied Robinson a tap-in
But Ireland were tearing Belgium apart. Jeff Hendrick picked out one of those low diagonal balls that made him a Premier League conductor way back when, only for Knight to rattle the side netting from a tough angle.
“It was anything but a friendly,” said Martínez afterwards.
The dominant period proved temporary, however, as the threat of Batshuayi never went away with McClean almost conned into a penalty before Duffy’s long leg pushed his shot wide for the corner that led to Belgium’s second. A laser cross from Thorgan Hazard gave Vanaken a free header with the fault appearing to be Duffy’s for losing the six foot five inch midfielder.
Robinson’s Cruyff-turn embarrassed Jason Denayer and Leander Dendoncker but his rasping shot was palmed sky ward by former Liverpool goalie Simon Mignolet.
As the contest ran out of fuel, Kenny turned to Browne for a lift and sure enough the Preston North End midfielder scored another important goal for his country. But it was Ogbene who retrieved Doherty’s brave interception before settling and chipping a ball for Browne to rise above eight Belgium defenders.
Republic of Ireland: Kelleher (Liverpool); Coleman (Everton), Duffy (Brighton and Hove Albion), Egan (Sheffield United); Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Cullen (Anderlecht), Hendrick (Queens Park Rangers), McClean (Wigan Athletic); Knight (Derby County), Ogbene (Rotherham United); Robinson (West Bromwich Albion).
Subs: Browne (Preston North End) for Hendrick, Keane (Wigan Athletic) for Knight (both 76), Manning (Swansea City) for McClean (80), Parrott (MK Dons) for Robinson (90).
Belgium: Mignolet (Club Brugge); Denayer (Lyon), Boyata (Hertha Berlin), Theate (Bolona); Saelemaekers (AC Milan), Tielemans (Leicester City), Dendoncker (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Dortmund); De Ketelaere (Club Brugge), Vanaken (Club Brugge); Batshuayi (Besiktas).
Subs: Foket (Reims) for Saelemaekers (half-time), Mangala (VfB Stuttgart) for Theate, Januzaj (Real Sociedad) for De Ketelaere (both 76), Benteke (Crystal Palace)for Batshuayi (83).
Referee: Nicolas Walsh (Scotland).