Robbie Brady was denied by the crossbar as the Republic of Ireland’s Nations League campaign ended with a whimper to leave manager Stephen Kenny still awaiting his first win.
On a night when victory would have secured Ireland’s place in pot two for the forthcoming World Cup draw, they were unable to find the back of the net for a seventh successive match – they have now not scored in 11 hours of football – as they scrapped their way to an uneventful 0-0 draw with depleted Bulgaria in Dublin.
Brady’s 68th-minute effort was as close as they came to ending Kenny’s barren run at the eighth attempt, but avoiding defeat means Ireland will remain in League B, if only just, at the expense of the Bulgarians.
Such has been the upheaval within the Ireland camp as a result of positive coronavirus tests and injuries in the last 10 days that two members of the starting line-up – debutant Ryan Manning and 19-year-old Derby midfielder Jason Knight – were not even included in the initial squad.
The home side started nervously and might have been made to pay when Brazilian-born full-back Cicinho was allowed to run into the penalty area and pull the ball back for striker Bozhidar Kraev, although his attempt was blocked at source.
Ireland repeatedly surrendered possession cheaply as they attempted to establish a rhythm and it was Bulgaria, with Kristiyan Malinov conducting from the middle of the field, who looked the more fluent as the half wore on.
James Collins only just failed to reach fellow striker Ronan Curtis’ deflected 17th-minute cross at the far post but goalkeeper Darren Randolph, winning his 50th cap, had to field Dimitar Iliev’s deflected effort 10 minutes later after Knight, who had looked assured until that point, played a blind pass into his path in an attempt to find skipper Shane Duffy.
The half-hour mark came and went with Kenny’s men having produced as tepid and incoherent a display as they had during the new manager’s reign to date, and Duffy’s diving header from a 32nd-minute free-kick – still seemingly their main route to goal – did little to relieve the tedium.
Defender Kristian Dimitrov landed a 35th-minute header on the roof of Randolph’s goal, but Collins might have done better at the other end six minutes before the break when he met Daryl Horgan’s clipped cross at the far post, but could not keep his effort down.
Collins hooked Dara O’Shea’s 54th-minute cross into the side-netting, but it was Curtis who should have broken the deadlock seconds later when, having been played in by Knight, he blazed high over from the edge of the box with just Lukov to beat.
Randolph almost compounded the striker’s error when he made a mess of an attempted drag-back with Kraev bearing down on him, and Duffy had to throw himself into the path of Dimitrov’s shot from point-blank range after a 67th-minute corner had been allowed to reach him at the far post.
Ireland’s response was instant and Brady was desperately unfortunate not to open the scoring when he cut inside Aleksandar Tsvetkov and unleashed a dipping shot which flew across Lukov but came back off the crossbar.
Kenny’s men threw everything they had in the quest for a winner as time ran down, but it was not to be.