It was not supposed to go like this.
For so long it looked like Ireland would claim a remarkable victory away to Portugal only for it to be scuppered by the man of the moment, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Two late goals from the newly crowned men’s international record goalscorer ended Ireland’s chances of getting off the mark in this group and as a result the Stephen Kenny era somehow awaits its first competitive point, let alone a maiden win.
It was so undeserved for an Irish team not just full of heart but who also passed the ball better than any Irish side in recent history.
There was a jovial atmosphere before kick-off with the vast majority of the 7,865 in attendance at the Estadio Algarve waving Portuguese flags and cheering on their star man and captain Cristiano Ronaldo who received his Euro 2020 golden boot award.
Once the game began, it was a solid if unspectacular start from Ireland. They quickly got into a solid shape with a back five and three midfielders screening in front of the defence meaning Portugal struggled to generate any momentum through early chances.
Kenny’s men looked good at the back until the 10th minute when young goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu played a woeful pass that fell to Bruno Fernandes close to goal. Jeff Hendrick was deemed to have fouled Fernandes and a penalty was given to Portugal. It was Cristiano Ronaldo’s chance to become the all-time leading goalscorer in men’s international football.
However, after a long VAR deliberation in which Slovenian referee Matej Jug eventually decided to stick with his original decision of a penalty despite the replay suggesting Hendrick had got the ball before he made contact with Fernandes, Ronaldo’s penalty was well saved by Bazunu to the keepers right.
The Irish celebrations were nearly put on hold when the VAR officials checked to see if the Irish goalkeeper’s feet had remained on his goal-line. Thankfully from an Irish perspective, the penalty was not retaken, and the game remained deadlocked at 0-0.
Ronaldo may well have not been on the pitch for his chance to create history. The new Manchester United signing threw a punch that connected with Dara O’Shea’s shoulder. It looked a certain red card. The officials strangely opted against even looking at the incident.
Ireland’s bright start continued after the penalty incident and their best chance of the half came when a corner ran through to the in-form Shane Duffy who failed to connect with the ball. Ireland needed to take every chance they had. Their first had gone abegging.
Portugal applied more and more pressure as a lively first half continued, and Liverpool forward Diogo Jota looked certain to score after a delightful cross from the right from Man City right back Joao Cancelo found Jota at the far post who somehow hit the post with a powerful header from close range. Ireland had survived again.
Kenny’s side looked dangerous on the counter attack, but failed to create anything tangible for their energetic front two of Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly. Dara O’Shea was forced off the pitch with an ankle injury suffered from a challenge on Jota. The West Brom defender was replaced by debutant Andrew Omobamadele.
Manchester United midfielder Fernandes had an effort from the edge of the box that went tamely over the bar with 10 minutes remaining in the half. Connolly had a similar half chance soon after after good link up play with Idah fell to the Brighton striker from 25 yards out to the left of the goal, but the Galway native’s shot went array and into the onlooking crowd behind the goal.
The pacy striker had a far better chance only minutes later that should have resulted in Ireland taking the lead. Matt Doherty played a well-timed pass over the top of the Portuguese defence that found the onrushing Connolly. However, he could never get the ball out of his feet and goalkeeper Patricio comfortably smothered the shot that went behind for a corner.
It was from the resulting corner that Ireland deservedly took the lead. A wonderful cross from Jamie McGrath, making his competitive debut for the Boys in Green, was perfectly met at the front post by Sheffield United defender John Egan whose powerful header went across the goal and nestled in the far bottom corner. Ecstasy for the handful of Irish supporters who defied Fifa’s ruling of a ban on away supporters.
Portugal upped the tempo for the closing stages of an intriguing 45 minutes and Jota had two shots from the left of the box that nearly resulted in an equaliser.
The first was spilled by Bazunu who recovered well to retrieve the ball. The second was a volley that went wide of Bazunu’s post.
Ireland had stemmed the red tide and went into the dressing room leading at half-time.
There was a flurry of corners for the 2016 European champions at the start of the second half as Ireland failed to get up the pitch in a similar fashion to what they had done throughout the opening period.
The sustained pressure from Fernando Santos’ side did not amount to anything early on, however, as a spirited Ireland proved difficult to break down for the group leaders.
Connolly and Idah remained brilliant out balls for the Irish defence and midfield whose range of passing allowed Ireland to become an attacking threat after the early pressure had fallen by the wayside for the home team.
Ireland had a legitimate penalty claim on the hour mark when Connolly looked certain to score after a John Egan knock down from a superb Idah cross from the left wing. Connolly’s shot was pulled wide due to a nudge in the back from Cancelo. The officials decided against awarding a second penalty of the evening to the astonishment of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny and his backroom team.
Despite increased pressure, the Portuguese crowd became restless as their side failed to create any chances of note. Substitute Bernardo Silva cut in from the right onto his trusty left foot, but his low shot was easily gathered by the wonderful Bazunu.
Ireland dropped deeper and deeper as a stop-start second half entered its last quarter and Kenny called on fresh legs with 20 minutes of normal time left for the away side to hold on for a victory that would reignite their World Cup qualifying bid. The experienced James McClean came on for the injured Aaron Connolly as Ireland’s early energy had lapsed.
City winger Bernardo Silva missed a glorious opportunity to equalise when a cross from Ronaldo found him at the far post. His shot from 8 yards went well over the bar as they continued to hang on to a nervy one-goal lead.
All the talk was of Ronaldo being on the brink of adding to his collection of history making individual records. Maybe it played on his mind throughout as the 36-year-old, much like his team, were well under par throughout the game in Faro.
He had the chance to find an equaliser late on but his free kick on the edge of the box was well saved by Bazunu. However, his moment came soon after as he headed past the Irish goalkeeper after a great pull back cross from Guedes from the right. History for Ronaldo. Heartbreak for Ireland.
Worse was to come for Ireland as Ronaldo proved why he is one of the greatest players of all time yet again with another powerful header as the game went beyond its 5 minutes of added time. A peculiar refereeing performance getting the ending it deserved as the Slovenian laughed and joked with the Portugal number 7 whilst giving him a yellow card for taking off his jersey during the celebrations.
The decision to keep Ronaldo on the pitch early on despite a clear punch had come back to bite Ireland as Kenny will have to wait until Saturday at the earliest for his first competitive win when Ireland host Azerbaijan at the Aviva Stadium.