Just what the doctor ordered? Maybe not, given that Callum Robinson drew scorn before this match by revealing he has turned down the Covid-19 vaccination despite contracting the virus twice, but in strictly football terms the West Brom forward gave the Republic of Ireland the tonic they sorely needed. His two lovely goals helped to earn the country’s first competitive win under Stephen Kenny, at the 13th attempt.
Chiedozie Ogbene, the Rotherham winger who made history on his debut in June by becoming the first Africa-born player to represent Ireland at senior level, rounded off the scoring with a fine late header. Even though Ireland spurned chances to win by even more, this was a welcome demonstration of efficiency, a quality they have recently lacked. The result does not revive hopes of World Cup qualification but it will do a power of good to confidence in Kenny and his team.
The manager came into the game under increasing pressure to deliver a win to complement encouraging recent performances and the important rebuilding work he has done. A meeting with the only country below them in Group A was an opportunity that should be taken even if Azerbaijan frustrated Ireland by drawing in Dublin in September.
Ireland started with a high pace and strong sense of adventure. Robinson was particularly bright: he usually is, when available, but so far he has been fit enough to play in only five of Kenny’s 17 matches in charge. This time he had extra motivation to make a good impression, given the flak he caught after revealing his unvaccinated status.
Kenny entrusted him with a free role just behind the main striker, Adam Idah, and Robinson thrived in it. “I just enjoy being a free spirit,” he said, “getting the ball and creating a threat. I’m lucky the gaffer gave me that licence.” Kenny said it was a simple decision: “He’s a very intelligent player, he brings a lot of creativity.”
In the seventh minute Robinson made his mark in spectacular style. James McClean made the opening with a slinky feint and pass. Robinson did the rest, taking a touch with his right foot before whacking a crisp left-footed shot high into the net from the edge of the area. The fact that he was falling as he struck the ball made the precision all the more impressive. He celebrated by plugging his fingers into his ears as if to show he was unfazed by the criticism.
Azerbaijan reacted well, often working themselves into good crossing positions. They did not create much but the hosts had enjoyed more possession than Kenny would have liked.
Idah helped Ireland get back on to the front foot on the half-hour, bounding down the right and sending over a cross that Robinson volleyed narrowly wide.
Robinson doubled Ireland’s lead seven minutes before the break, dodging past Maksim Medvedev at the edge of the box and then wrapping his right foot round a shot that took a nick off Hojjat Haghverdi on its way past the goalkeeper’s flimsy dive.
Haghverdi made a better intervention just after the break, when he denied McClean a goal after a superb 60-yard run. Ireland grew more dominant and created several opportunities to make it 3-0. Shane Duffy nodded wide from six yards after a cross by the irrepressible Robinson, who later missed two good chances to complete a hat-trick.
Ten minutes from time Gavin Bazunu preserved the clean sheet by tipping a drive by Gara Garayev on to the bar before Ogbene embellished the night by steering a header into the net from a corner.