Welcome back to rock bottom
There were no blushes spared at the Aviva Stadium this evening.
Azerbaijan are 112th in the world rankings and have a doughty but limited side. They are not up to much.
Ireland are 47th in the world and it would take a fairly blinkered fan to argue that we are much different to our latest opponents.
Irish football fans must have thought that losing to Finland [Nations Cup] and then Luxembourg [World Cup Qualifier] was rock bottom. Luxembourg. How could it possibly get worse than that?
Stephen Kenny got his players back, last week, for a stretch of three games in seven days that would decide our World Cup destiny, once and for all. A playoff spot was already looking unlikely, but perhaps we could bloody a Portuguese or Serbian nose.
On Wednesday night, we took some stick for saying the Irish players had restored some pride in the jersey. Many disgruntled fans hate the 'brave defeat' and 'did us proud' lines, but that game against Portugal, in Faro, was a glimpse of what was possible. Well-drilled Irish players going out with a plan and a purpose - not content to sit back and play for a scoreless draw.
The truth is, had Aaron Connolly had a bit more composure or had referee Matej Jug not bottled a clear penalty call, Ireland would have gone 2-0 clear with 20 minutes to go. They were desperately, desperately unlucky to leave Portugal with 0 points.
But pride was restored, in our opinion. It was a bold Irish performance against a team rammed with world-class talent.
Against Azerbaijan, all that credit drained from the bank. This was a rough outing in which few players shone and our limitations were laid bare for all to see.
Some of the young players on show may yet come good and enjoy long, hopefully prosperous, international careers. On Saturday night, with 20,000 fans back at Lansdowne Road, several faltered when they had the favourites' tag.
Aaron Connolly looks short of form and confidence. He made his name, early doors, by gunning at defenders and making them commit to tackles. He tried that on a couple of occasions tonight but lacked conviction. Troy Parrott made good runs that were not rewarded but looks a stretch away from the saviour many pegged him for at the age of 17.
Jayson Molumby has yet to convince at this level, too. He had a shaky first half, was very sloppy in possession and his head was gone after jumping too early and missing a gilt-edged chance, early in the first half. From the 45th to 60th minute, before he was substituted, he looked like someone that had won a half-time raffle for a short stint on the pitch. One hopes his loan spell at West Brom garners him game-time and form.
And then we have a guy, in James McClean, that has done wonders for Ireland, and roused fans, in the past. Each time you see him play for Ireland now, you are convinced this is the end. Each time he comes back for more.
Nothing came off for McClean against Azerbaijan. Nothing. He had a foul through, knocked balls out of play, over-cooked multiple free-kicks and gifted the visitors a chance by botching a Cruyff turn down on the left touchline.
The problem for Stephen Kenny is the problem so many Irish managers, of late, have faced. There are diminishing returns, in terms of players at decent professional sides in England and Scotland. Five of the Starting XI are in the Premier League [not including players like Molumby and Parrot loaned to lower league sides] and only three are regulars for their clubs.
Some fans, tonight, are asking why Kenny did not start Andrew Omobamidele and Jamie McGrath when both only made their competitive debuts on Wednesday. They are not exactly house-hold names, but both acquitted themselves well in Portugal and the fan queries are valid.
Ireland do not have a goalscoring threat of any regard, bar our centre-halves Shane Duffy and John Egan. When chances fell to Connolly, Parrott and Callum Robinson, they were squandered. Adam Idah played well, but he was also wasteful. Ireland have to create 10 chances to give themselves one decent look at ticking the scoreboard on.
Serbia are next, on Tuesday, and in are in top form. Ireland are not going to the 2022 World Cup, and the players are now in the role of spoilers. Every game they play, for the rest of their group, will be a chance for revenge. They are not dead games, though. Finish fourth or fifth in this group and our future rankings will take a hit.
The imperative now, as hard as it is to accept, is finishing third, ahead of Luxembourg.
We had hoped this visit to rock bottom would be brief. Barring a major up-tick in fortune against Serbia, we'll be here for a while yet.