Substitute Alan Browne ensured the Republic of Ireland’s big day did not end in defeat as his late equalizer secured a creditable draw against world number one side Belgium.
Browne powered home an 86th-minute header as the Football Association of Ireland’s centenary game ended 2-2 at the Aviva Stadium.
It was no more than Stephen Kenny’s side deserved – they are now unbeaten in seven outings and have now lost only once in 11, and that against Portugal – after Chiedozie Ogbene had canceled out Michy Batshuayi’s sumptuous opener,
only for Hans Vanaken’s deflected header to hand the visitors the lead once again.
How Republic of Ireland held world number one-ranked side Belgium…
Roberto Martinez may have left his biggest names at home, but still fielded a strong side, and it was to Ireland’s credit that Josh Cullen, who plays his club football for Anderlecht, and Ogbene in particular did not look out of place despite the illustrious company they were keeping against a team who will be among the favorites to lift the World Cup in Qatar.
In a cagey start, the visitors saw plenty of the ball, but largely deep inside their own half as Ireland’s press denied them space, leaving back three Jason Denayer, Dedryck Boyata and Arthur Theate repeatedly passing the ball between themselves.
When Ireland were in possession, Cullen and Jeff Hendrick tried to inject impetus, but they too were operating at a distance from the men ahead of them.
However, Belgium took the lead courtesy of the game’s first real moment of quality with 12 minutes gone when Batshuayi picked up the ball wide on the left and cut inside Seamus Coleman before dispatching a delicious curling shot past the diving Caoimhin Kelleher.
He might have doubled his tally within four minutes, but Cullen’s last-ditch block sent his attempt ballooning over the crossbar.
The movement of Charles De Ketelaere and Vanaken behind Batshuayi was causing the Republic all kinds of problems with the Belgians slipping into their well-established rhythm despite the six changes Martinez had made to his team, and the striker, currently on loan from Chelsea at Besiktas , dragged a 23rd-minute effort into the side-netting as he tried to catch out Kelleher at his near post.
If the locals among a crowd of 48,808 had little to cheer in the opening 25 minutes, they had something – or someone – to boo when images of the Belgian bench, including a sheepish Thierry Henry, whose handball famously denied Ireland their place at the 2010 World Cup finals, appeared on the big screen.
The home side gradually worked their way into the game with James McClean and Jason Knight linking well down the left, and the Wigan man saw a 34th-minute shot from distance deflected wide.
They were back level within seconds when Theate and Youri Tielemans went up with Shane Duffy in an attempt to meet Callum Robinson’s cross and Ogbene controlled the loose ball with his back to goal before acrobatically hooking a shot beyond helpless keeper Simon Mignolet.
Ireland returned with their tails up and might have been ahead within two minutes when, after Coleman had won possession in midfield and driven forward, Robinson saw his instinctive flick as he tried to turn McClean’s shot past Mignolet cleared off the line by Denayer.
Duffy was relieved to see Batshuayi’s 57th-minute shot fly just wide after he had thrown himself into his path, but the respite proved temporary as Vanaken’s header from the resulting corner hit the unfortunate Coleman and flew past
Robinson was denied by Mignolet after expertly turning on to McClean’s ball into his feet, but the home side got their reward with four minutes remaining when Browne climbed high to thump a header home from Ogbene’s inviting cross.
Opta stats: Republic of Ireland’s unbeaten run continues…
- Republic of Ireland are unbeaten in their last seven matches in all competitions (W3 D4). The Boys in Green have scored 12 goals in their last five games, as many as they had in their previous 17 beforehand.
- Belgium remain unbeaten in their last 16 international friendlies (W8 D8), in a run stretching back to 2016. However, in all competitions, the Red Devils have only won one of their last five games (D2 L2), both scoring and conceding in all five of these matches (nine goals scored and nine conceded).
- Republic of Ireland are now winless in their last eight meetings with Belgium (D5 L3) since a 3-2 friendly win in May 1966.
- Chiedozie Ogbene has scored in three of his six senior international caps for Republic of Ireland; he has as many goals for his country this season as he does in 45 appearances for his club Rotherham United in 2021-22 (three).
- Michy Batshuayi has scored 13 goals in his last 12 starts for Belgium, including five in his last four friendlies as a starter.
- Hans Vanaken has been directly involved in nine goals in his last seven starts for Belgium, scoring four and assisting five. In fact, since the start of 2021, only Kevin De Bruyne (seven) has assisted more goals for the Red Devils in all competitions than Vanaken (five).
Republic of Ireland are back in action on Tuesday when they host Lithuania at the Aviva Stadium, live on Sky Sports Arena; kick off 7.45pm.
Live International Football
Tuesday 29th March 7:40pm
Meanwhile, Belgium are also playing on Tuesday when they host Burkina Faso, live on Sky Sports Football red button; kick off 7.45pm.