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‘Exactly what we worked on’

It was almost the perfect night for John O’Shea as Ireland were a spot-kick away from beating Belgium at the Aviva Stadium.

Tasked with facing the world’s fourth ranked side on him managerial debut, O’Shea’s side played with a near-perfect mix of courage and composure as they battled to a scoreless draw against their esteemed opponents.

It could have been so much more for the interim manager as Evan Ferguson’s first-half penalty was saved, which would have put Ireland in control of the contest midway through the first half.

And it was not an isolated incident, as it was O’Shea’s side who created the better chances throughout, with Chiedozie Ogbene missing a gilt-edged opportunity inside the opening five minutes, while Sammie Szmodics and Ferguson had more chances to break the deadlock.

For all Belgium’s style and stature, they rarely threatened, with their big chance coming 15 minutes before the end as Caoimhin Kelleher was forced to make a fine stop from substitute Thomas Meunier.

The encounter was described by Belgium manager, Domenico Tedesco, as a “boring game”, however it was far from an evening of ennui for O’Shea who was delighted with the performance from his side after just one week in charge of the squad.

“What, no sharpness from his team?” said O’Shea, when asked for a response to the Belgium boss who also said that the match lack sharpness.

“We had the best chances. We were aware beforehand that they would go with that 4-3-3 shape.

“With the talented squad that they have, they made changes and the players they had coming on are talented youngsters playing at top clubs around Europe, so it was going to be a challenge.

“But when you saw the chances we created early on, big chances, it was exactly what we had worked on, to be compact, aggressive… it was a shame we didn’t get the rewards in that sense from that first half, especially that was the big thing for me.”

John O’Shea encourages Andrew Omobamidele during the game

That strong first-half performance forced Belgium into a rethink at the break as they threw on three substitutes in order to play a more aggressive attacking line, as Youri Tielemens and Leandro Trossard had looked to play from deep in the first half, with little success.

Ireland were under the cosh for certain spells in that second half, with the battle between Seamus Coleman and Manchester City star Jeremy Doku particularly entertaining, yet they did not offer up too many chances for their star-studded visitors.

But the performance reinforced the manager’s team selection, who felt unable to overlook any of the three central defenders playing regularly in the Premier League, while two stalwarts in the wing-back position also received special praise.

“The two wing-backs, Seamus [Coleman] and Robbie [Brady], that’s what I thought about straight away when I saw the potential of our three centre-backs playing in the Premier League,” said O’Shea.

“That they have that experience around them to keep playing, to keep pushing them. It was never going to be an issue for me as I know the type of people and players they are.

“It’s a year since Seamus was back around the squad and you’re thinking we will have a little word with him halfway through the second half to see how he was, if we would need a reshuffle with the subs,” added O’Shea.

“The words that came back were very positive. It wasn’t surprising, but we needed to double check. That’s why he was picked to play, and he captained the team.”

Sammie Szmodics also impressed on his debut, looking immediately comfortable on the international stage, setting up Chiedozie Ogbene for an early effort, while also making space and finding the right positions to work a few goalbound chances.

The Blackburn man also worked tirelessly back when out of possession and while he could not mark his debut with a goal, he will no doubt be very pleased with his overall contribution before bowing out in the 70th minute.

“That’s why we went with Chio and Sammie,” said O’Shea. “To support Evan, the form they are in, playing for their clubs, the confidence they have and obviously the connections they have with the team as well was a big factor.”

Seamus Coleman had his hands full in the second half marking Jeremy Doku

And so on to the game’s major talking point; the missed penalty in the 28th minute as Evan Ferguson’s effort was batted away by Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Matz Sels.

“It was just unfortunate, Ev had a little slip just before he knocked it so it would have put him off,” said O’Shea.

“A youngster stepping up like that, it shows the courage he has and he didn’t let it affect him, he knocked into the centre backs as soon as he could again and got his confidence going.

“It’s one of those things, he was unlucky with one where he was in a great position in the second half as well.

“That’s what we talked about at half time, about the reset, going at Belgium as quickly as we could, worked on a nice little kick-off, and it was a really great ball from Robbie, just a touch too high and maybe Evan could have timed it a bit better but it was a touch too high, he was unlucky but it was a well-worked move.”

“It was straightforward,” added O’Shea, when asked what he said to Ferguson after the game.

“He will be ready to go as soon as we need him to. He will have another spell five or six years down the line with a couple of months without a goal, it happens to top strikers.

“As soon as he gets on the goal trail he will back on a run.”

Evan Ferguson’s first-half penalty could have won it for Ireland

So overall, there was no doubt that it was a very successful night for O’Shea who will do it all again on Tuesday night against Switzerland, before the FAI are set to name the permanent manager in April.

And while O’Shea was evidently enthused by the evening’s entertainment, there was still room for a little frustration with the fact that his side missed out on a chance to get back to winning ways, which was the major theme of this international training camp.

“It’s a frustrating one,” said O’Shea, regarding the result.

“You appreciate Belgium had a decent bit of possession, but we felt beforehand we wouldn’t mind that as we knew the damage we could create against them on the break.

“If we take those chances when they arrive in the game, it would open up Belgium in the game and we could exploit it even more.

“A frustrating one in that sense: you’re playing Belgium in Dublin, you’d take a clean sheet but a little bit disappointed in the end too.”

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