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3 winners and losers from Ireland's latest international window

Stephen Kenny has plenty to contemplate after an eventful last few days.

Michael Obafemi celebrates scoring.
Michael Obafemi celebrates scoring.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

The winners

1. Michael Obafemi

It was seen as a close call between Obafemi and Chiedozie Ogbene in attack in the build-up to this international window, with the Rotherham man enjoying the better form at club level. In the end, though, Kenny opted for Obafemi, presumably based largely on his impressive display for Ireland in the 3-0 win over Scotland last June. And the Swansea star — who has started six times in the Championship this season — justified his selection. He was one of Ireland’s better players in the 2-1 loss at Hampden, and scored a superb goal in last night’s win over Armenia. The one nagging concern is his fitness, with the Dublin-born striker not completing 90 minutes in either game and going down to receive treatment before being taken off at the Aviva last night.

2. Robbie Brady

Made his first Ireland start in 18 months, overcoming a troubled injury-ridden spell and being rewarded for encouraging form that has seen him start nine times in the Championship for Preston this season — seven more than he managed with Bournemouth in the entirety of last season. It is no surprise that McClean’s pace, power and greater defensive instincts were preferred against Scotland, while Brady offers more creativity and consequently was used in the game where Ireland were more likely to be on the front foot. The Dubliner duly delivered with an influential display last night, producing the corner from which John Egan headed home the opening goal and stepping up to take the late penalty that handed Ireland a dramatic win.  “I definitely have something to offer,” he told reporters afterwards. “For some of my performances, I’ll have to keep them up if I want to stay involved and I know that.”

3. Josh Cullen

It was a case of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ at the Aviva Stadium last night. Josh Cullen is the type of player who is often underappreciated due to his unseen work. The Burnley footballer is generally selected by Kenny when available but missed the Armenia game due to suspension, after picking up a booking against Scotland. Ireland badly missed the stability and calming presence he brings to the midfield, and it’s doubtful they would have collapsed so dramatically on Tuesday during that chaotic three-minute period had the 26-year-old been involved in proceedings. It was interestingly the first time Ireland had been without Cullen in their starting lineup in a competitive game since November 2020, when the Boys in Green’s last Nations League campaign ended amid an anticlimactic 0-0 draw with Bulgaria.

The losers

1. Shane Duffy

It’s not so long ago that Duffy was one of the first names on the Irish teamsheet. Of all the players at Kenny’s disposal, only Matt Doherty made more starts in the manager’s first 20 games in charge. The centre-back has been a magnificent servant for his country, but the defender’s form with Fulham, where he has yet to start a Premier League game, has ultimately cost him his place in the starting XI for now. Duffy had to settle for a place on the bench against both Scotland and Armenia, with Dara O’Shea impressing in his absence. Consequently, it seems likely that the Derry native will need more game time at club level to win his place back in the Irish team.

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2. Conor Hourihane

With Josh Cullen suspended, Hourihane may have been expecting to start Ireland’s match with Armenia as one of the more natural players in that sitting midfield role. However, he was instead introduced five minutes into the second half, with Kenny bringing off Jayson Molumby after the West Brom player was lucky to avoid a second yellow card following a reckless drag back of his opponent’s jersey. Yet the Derby player didn’t help his cause thereafter, producing an unconvincing display with the obvious lowlight being his sloppy misplaced pass in the build-up to Armenia’s equaliser. The 31-year-old has been doing well since joining League One outfit Derby, scoring a brace in his most recent of 11 appearances this season for the Rams, but he has slipped down the Ireland pecking order under Kenny and last night’s display off the bench may further limit his chances going forward.

3. Jeff Hendrick

The 30-year-old will have come into this international break feeling a degree of optimism. At club level, he is enjoying his best form for a long time, with 10 Championship appearances under his belt for third-place Reading. Regardless, Kenny kept faith with the same midfield trio who impressed in the 3-0 win over Scotland, with Hendrick an unused sub in that game. He came into the match versus Armenia in place of the suspended Josh Cullen, but didn’t really grasp his chance, giving the ball away cheaply on a couple of occasions and struggling to have a significant impact in the game. With extra pressure likely to come now from some impressive Ireland U21 midfield graduates, Hendrick must do better to retain his spot in the side.

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