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Still a long way to go all over field

Nations League: Rep of Ireland 0 Finland 1

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Enda Stevens of Republic of Ireland following his side’s defeat during the Nations League match against Finland at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

Enda Stevens of Republic of Ireland following his side’s defeat during the Nations League match against Finland at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Enda Stevens of Republic of Ireland following his side’s defeat during the Nations League match against Finland at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

For a variety of reasons, this was not the Aviva Stadium introduction that Stephen Kenny had in mind.

This defeat to Finland is a reminder that a team described as a work in progress needs a lot of work.

Before boarding his flight home, the victorious Finnish boss Markku Kanerva spoke in generalities about the physical threat posed by Ireland, the stereotypical view that Kenny wants to shake off.

Yet his team will have to show they can hurt teams in other ways before that happens. Patience will be required for this process; an overreaction to this defeat could only be explained by a preconceived notion about how this experiment was going to go.

In saying that, a downbeat Shane Duffy spoke bluntly when he said better teams would more clinically punish weaknesses that were apparent here. Kenny acknowledged that he's experimented this week with Slovakia in mind, yet it's possible he has been presented with more questions than answers.

That said, if the Irish reaction to this reverse could be summed up in a sentence, it's that management feel that a fitter side with match sharpness would be better able to implement what is being asked of them.

Duffy placed his own sluggishness in defensive situations down to his recent inactivity. Ireland's goalscoring problems have been well documented, yet defensive solidity was a bedrock of the past year.

However, the manager politely argued that the structure of the team was centred around protecting the back four. He is trying to adopt a more positive style that involves risk-taking and operating higher up the park in a 4-3-3 system, but Finland were able to pick open gaps relatively easily and green shirts didn't have the battery power to cover effectively.

"We were tired out there," said Duffy, "And when you are tired, you make the wrong decisions. I've got to deal with big spaces. This is the way the manager wants to play and you've got to get used to it or else you won't play. We'll have a month (before Slovakia) and a lot of lads will be in better condition."

The players are all accustomed to closed doors football with their respective clubs, yet there was something surreal about this occasion, with the international matchday experience and the anthems and the ceremony and all that goes with it almost feeling like a dress rehearsal for the real thing rather than a fixture of substance.

It's veering into excuse territory to point to that as a reason for lethargy, but there's no doubt that Aviva's cavernous features enhance the discomfort.

Settled

Finland settled into the game better, retaining a 3-5-2 formation they experimented with in their luckless defeat to Wales. They were assured in the opening minutes while Ireland were slow to react, with Kenny admitting they were poor for 20 minutes.

Kenny had hinted that he might freshen things up, and he was clearly specifically referring to the midfield department as it was the only area that he touched with James McCarthy, Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick replaced in their respective roles by Harry Arter, Robbie Brady and debutant Jayson Molumby. Arter was cast in the McCarthy role as the holding player, with Brady and Molumby encouraged to get around the park.

The difficulty was that Finland had good spells of possession that did move Ireland around and they created an early opening that was eerily similar to the Bulgarian goal during the week. Robert Taylor cut inside into space and found a hole to release Teemu Pukki with a combination of a weak shot and strong reactions from Darren Randolph preventing Finland from going ahead.

There were other moments where Finland weren't able to capitalise on promising situations. Ireland steadied the ship and had a reasonable passage leading to the interval. Adam Idah was working hard to lead the line without gaining much joy and an issue was that Aaron Connolly and Callum O'Dowda were finding it hard to impose in general play. Kenny felt Idah fared better than in Bulgaria, whereas Connolly found it hard to reach his Sofia level.

There was a lot of play down the left, where there were passages that highlighted that Connolly has actually played most of his club football in a different position.

"I wanted to see what attacking and midfield options we have for Slovakia," Kenny said, explaining the willingness to try U-21 graduates in that department.

Clearly, there was an attempt to bring Connolly more into the game after the restart and he was involved in bright passages prior to an O'Dowda shot that actually brought the Bristol City player's evening to a premature end. Callum Robinson came in, before Finland made the change that prompted the breaking the deadlock.

Ireland were caught napping as Fredrik Jensen was introduced with Arter's exuberance resulting in the loss of possession from a throw with Brady and Molumby caught in a tangle as Jensen started and finished a move with the help of Pukki and Taylor.

There was evidence of midfield fatigue in that move and that was a feature of the remainder of the game. Finland made hay in that section. Kenny brought in David McGoldrick and James McClean for Idah and Connolly, yet acknowledged that it came at the expense of not recharging the engine room. "If we had five subs, I would have changed two midfielders," he said.

Ireland did have chances to level courtesy of Connolly, Robinson and then McGoldrick wasted the best chance of all after a press forced a Finnish error. However, Randolph also saved excellently at the other end and a debate around who deserved the game's second goal could have swung both ways.

There was a late rally from the hosts, with Arter threatening and forcing a corner that Brady sent perfectly in the direction of Duffy. Unlike Thursday, he couldn't convert and Kenny tasted defeat and the inevitable questions that accompany it.