No real ‘dawn of a new era’ headlines from Turkey, I’m afraid, as Ireland went down 1-0 on a night which, above all, was a reminder that neither of these teams will be starring in Russia in a few months.
The big hope beforehand would have been that Sean Maguire would open his international account but that never looked like happening for the hour he was on the pitch, and while Scott Hogan came much closer to scoring on his debut, the Aston Villa man’s failure to find the back of the net, after being superbly set up by Jeff Hendrick, robbed the visitors of their one big chance of glory.
Still, Martin O’Neill will find solace and encouragement here and there, not least in the return to international action after long lay-offs of both Seamus Coleman and Alan Judge.
But undoubtedly the most notable plus of an otherwise largely undistinguished affair, was the wonderfully assured debut of 19-year-old Declan Rice first in defence and later in midfield.
The manager had mixed the untried with the tested in his starting line-up, Rice and Hogan being handed their debuts, Colin Doyle resuming in goal after his gap years and, at long last, Cap’n Coleman reappearing in a green shirt after his own protracted spell in the injury wilderness.
For the first time since Ireland were beaten 3-1 by Mexico in a friendly in the United States last year, O’Neill’s team began in that much talked about but unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation, with Rice, Shane Duffy and Kevin Long in defence, Coleman and James McClean deployed as wing-backs, Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick and Alan Browne the midfield three and, upfront, Scott Hogan and Sean Maguire forming a novel striking duo.
In Turkey’s largely home-based line-up, Everton striker Cenk Tosun would have been a familiar face to a few of the visitors, as manager Mircea Lucescu went in search of only his second victory since taking charge of the side last August.
The Turks, like the Irish, might be sitting out the World Cup this summer but before kick-off in the blood-red Antalya Stadium last night, massive banners were raised behind each goal and unfurled in the centre circle to promote Turkey’s candidacy to host Euro 2024.
Meanwhile, with the PA blasting out the tunes, every spectator given a big Crescent-Star flag to wave and the local Ultras banging the drums and choreographing the chants, a less than full house did its best to add some atmospheric fire to this particular friendly.
Colin Doyle with a save and Shane Duffy with a block were called into action in the opening minutes as the home side – playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation - quickly began to dominate the ball.
Their Trabonspor number 11, Yusuf Yazici, was a particularly lively threat coming in off the right flank where, with full-back Gokhan Gonul always happy to overlap, James McClean was struggling with his defensive duties.
For the Irish, feeding off scraps, their first attempt – or, rather, half-attempt – on goal only came after 15 minutes when a quickly taken free-kick allowed Coleman the space to cross into the box, where Maguire couldn’t make the right kind of connection to work goalkeeper Volkan Babacan.
Then, entirely out of the blue in the 17th minute, came an outstanding chance for Ireland and Scott Hogan. In what was by some distance the visitors’ most inventive moment so far, Jeff Hendrick showed his class by splitting the Turkish defence with a wonderful through ball which put Hogan in one on one with the goalkeeper.
But, although the debutant striker was able to take the ball around Babacan, he took it too far to the left and, from an increasingly tight angle, was only able to hit the side netting.
Redoubling their efforts after that reprieve, the Turks assumed near total command of the game, Doyle being called into action again in the 27th minute by a stinging Tosun drive at the end of an attack which had begun with Maguire, who was not having much joy at all, being muscled off the ball.
Two minutes later, the busy and otherwise impressive Duffy almost headed into his own net when trying to clear a cross from Gonul, the ball freakishly passing between ‘keeper Doyle and his far post before going out for a corner.
It might have been mostly one-way traffic but resolute and disciplined Irish defending, in which Long and Rice were able assistants for Duffy, ensured that the game still remained scoreless going into the second half.
But it wasn’t long before the rearguard finally did crack, Turkey taking a deserved lead in the 52nd minute, after skipper Mehmet Topal escaped the attentions of McClean and volleyed home as, not for the first time in Martin O’Neill’s time in charge, Ireland were caught cold by a short corner routine.
An unrewarding hour for Sean Maguire ended with his replacement in the 61st minute by Shane Long while Seamus Coleman made way for new cap Matt Doherty. Further change saw the impressively composed Rice advance to a midfield role as Ciaran Clark replaced Conor Hourihane and David Meyler came in for Alan Browne.
With Daryl Horgan now on for Scott Hogan and McClean pushed forward to bolster the attack, Rice began to catch the eye even more, at one point his vision and determination combining in a surging run through the middle, before his pass set up the now advanced McClean for his own first trademark gallop of the game, though it ended with his ball into the box easily cleared by the Turkish defence.
Alan Judge got to make his welcome return to international duty with just over ten minutes to go but that was the last bit of uplifting news for Ireland on a night which ended with the visitors, worryingly, struggling to create chances again and the hosts, it has to be said, running out pretty comfortable winners.
Babacan, Kaldirim, Aziz (Ayhan 81), Yokuslu, Gonul, Calhanoglu (Kahveci 79), Yazic (Potuk 86), Soyuncu, Topal, Akbaba (Mallie 67), Tosun (Unal 64)
Doyle, Coleman (Doherty 62), Duffy, K , Long, Rice, McClean, Browne (Meyler 67), Hendrick (Judge 79), Hourihane (Clark 67), Hogan (Horgan 75), Maguire (Long 61)
Referee Slavo Vincic (Slovenia)
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