Stephen Kenny said he did not want another gallant defeat. This ignominy was not what he had in mind. Gerson Rodrigues’s fierce long-range goal five minutes from time earned Luxembourg a famous win that leaves Ireland’s World Cup qualification ambitions hanging by the skimpiest of threads. Kenny’s record as manager reads: played 10, won 0.
Luxembourg are the lowest-ranked opponents that Kenny has faced and were supposed to be the side against whom he oversaw his first win. Instead Ireland flopped to a new low, with defeat the consequence of a grim performance.
Kenny made three alterations to the side that started Wednesday’s 3-2 defeat in Serbia, most notably dropping 21-year-old Mark Travers and replacing him with an even less experienced goalkeeper, the uncapped 19-year-old Gavin Bazunu. That decision made sense since, unlike Travers, the Dubliner has enjoyed a strong season at club level – albeit in League One, where he is on loan at Rochdale from Manchester City. Up front the injured Aaron Connolly was replaced by James Collins, a reward for the Luton striker’s goal after coming off the bench against Serbia. The other change saw Derby’s Jason Knight come into midfield. Kenny retained the back-three formation that had worked well in Belgrade.
Luxembourg are not the duds they once were, having earned some respectable results in recent years; nevertheless, they are ranked 98th in the world and their preparations for this match involved losing on Wednesday to Qatar who, in an oddity devised to help the World Cup hosts, are taking part in Group A for practice rather than for points. Kenny had been loath to bill this as a must-win match but defeat could only be a disgrace.
Kenny had called for a fast start by his team but the visitors threatened in the second minute, as a curling shot from the edge of the area by Vincent Thill posed the first test for Bazunu. The goalkeeper showed no sign of nerves, just safe hands. Kenny had also stressed the need for zippy passing to unhinge Luxembourg but his team were ponderous. They struggled to find a rhythm in the face of energetic pressing. Too many passes went astray.
Not until the 18th minute did Ireland muster a shot, and it came from the sort of intricate move that Kenny advocates. Bazunu started it at the back and Collins nearly finished it at the other end, sliding in to meet a low cross from the left by Callum Robinson, but goalkeeper Anthony Moris made a fine save.
The beginning of an onslaught? Far from it. Ireland did not work another opening in the half and almost suffered a shock just before the break when Rodrigues sent a lob towards goal from more than 20 yards out. Bazuno backpedalled swiftly to avoid being beaten in the same way that Travers was against Serbia.
Kenny did not wait to switch things up. He introduced Robbie Brady for Matt Doherty for the second half, with Alan Browne shifting to wing-back. Brady made an impact within seconds, darting into the box and pulling the ball back towards Collins, who was beaten to it by a defender. Ten minutes later Brady delivered a nice free-kick to Browne, who headed wide from 10 yards. These, though, were sporadic thrusts rather than part of a pattern of Irish dominance. Luxembourg looked comfortable for long periods.
Bazunu had to make another smart save after the hour, this time from Olivier Thill. Luxembourg were starting to fancy their chances and a shot over the bar by Robinson, Ireland’s brightest attacker, did not discourage them from seeking a famous away win. That prospect seemed to jolt Ireland into more vigorous action. Collins nearly scored with an overhead kick, firing just wide from Brady’s cross.
Ireland failed to threaten again.