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Dublin: 10°C Saturday 17 April 2021

David Meyler: Enough signs in Serbia performance to believe Ireland can kick on under Kenny

In his latest column, the former Ireland midfielder looks ahead to Saturday’s World Cup qualifiers.

Ireland captain Seamus Coleman and goalscorer Alan Browne on Wednesday night.
Ireland captain Seamus Coleman and goalscorer Alan Browne on Wednesday night.
Image: Nikola Krstic/INPHO

EX-IRELAND INTERNATIONAL David Meyler is The42′s football columnist for this season.

Every Friday, the former Hull City and Sunderland midfielder will give expert insight and his predictions ahead of the weekend’s action, alongside the latest William Hill prices.

In his latest column, Meyler gives his thoughts on Ireland’s opening 2022 World Cup qualifier away to Serbia before previewing two of Saturday’s Group A games — Ireland v Luxembourg and Serbia v Portugal. 

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Ireland v Luxembourg, 7.45pm Saturday

Starting a World Cup qualification campaign with defeat is never good, but I genuinely feel that there were a number of positives to take away from Ireland’s 3-2 loss in Belgrade.  

In Stephen Kenny’s previous eight games in charge, he had gone with a 4-3-3 formation but switched to 5-3-2 against Serbia on Wednesday evening.

For some time, there has been this big debate about who should play right full-back. Leaving the raft of injuries aside, there are two marquee players in the squad at the moment — Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty.

Stephen began his tenure by choosing Matt over Seamus, and the Everton captain has missed more recent international windows through injury.

So a real positive for me was seeing a line-up that fit them both in. Seamus is a leader — on and off the pitch — and was excellent again as one of three centre-backs.

The switch was interesting because Kenny hadn’t done it before. Ireland’s coaching staff would have had very little time to work with the players, but overall I felt they did really well.

I thought the midfield three of Josh Cullen, Jayson Molumby and Alan Browne all put in good performances.

Having last scored through Shane Duffy’s injury-time header in Kenny’s very first game in charge — a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria — I must say it was a relief to see Alan Browne’s goal hit the back of the net 18 minutes in.

The build-up play was fantastic, particularly Callum Robinson’s contribution. I thought his display was something to build on. Ireland scored two on the night, created a couple more chances and Aaron Connolly also had a decent shout for a penalty.

It’s easy to look at the result on paper and say we conceded three goals, but I think they were all avoidable.

Under new management in legendary former player Dragan Stojkovic, the home side have moved on from old reliables such as Aleksandar Kolarov and Nemanja Matic but there were still several players that the Irish lads would have been familiar with. 

I was involved in a 1-0 defeat to Serbia at the Aviva Stadium in May 2017, when they lined out with a front three of Dusan Tadic, Filip Kostic and Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Only Tadic got the nod to start in Stojkovic’s first game at the helm on Wednesday, but the Ajax man proved to be the difference. 

If you look at their equaliser, Tadic beats Ciaran Clark in the air to flick on the header to Dusan Vlahovic, who produces a really good finish. At 21, the Fiorentina striker has scored 12 goals in Serie A this season and you can see why.

It was also Tadic’s through-ball for the second, as Mitrovic produced a delicate chip. Mark Travers will be disappointed with himself for his positioning but you have to remember that he is an inexperienced goalkeeper, who only started as Darren Randolph and Caoimhin Kelleher are both missing.

When you slow down the replay, it doesn’t look great for Travers but you wouldn’t expect Mitrovic to do what he did. I mean that with no disrespect to the Fulham striker, who is now Serbia’s all-time top scorer at the age of 26 with 38 goals from 62 caps.

He is a big, physical striker, who holds up the ball, wants to fight with centre-halves and looks to get into the box to finish moves off, like we saw with his second goal.

The chip came as a surprise, and you’d put money on him hitting that with power. Their third was a real moment of class as Tadic’s pinpoint cross found Mitrovic’s head.

serbia-v-republic-of-ireland-fifa-world-cup-2022-european-qualifying-group-d-rajko-mitic-stadium Ireland midfielder Josh Cullen closes Serbia's talisman Dusan Tadic. Source: PA

Stephen, Keith Andrews, Anthony Barry and Dean Kiely will analyse the game over the coming days to find little things that we can cut out and fix.

One thing I would suggest is that we need to get the full-backs higher. We’ve seen Enda Stevens and Matt Doherty cause real problems for opponents at club level, more so over the last few seasons as opposed to during the current campaign.

There were parts of Wednesday’s match where we were brave on the ball, had spells of possession and got into good areas. We just needed that creative spark to unlock them.

I feel we will see more improvements once the players get more familiar with their roles. That was Coleman’s first game for Ireland since 2019. The same goes for Clark. 

Give it time for Dara O’Shea to get used to playing with them. You could make that argument all over the pitch. 

Everybody wants time and football is a results business, but I felt there were enough signs in Wednesday’s performance to be optimistic that we can kick on from here.

Clearly, Stephen was not hired to just bring about progression. He knows he is in the job to win games and I’ve no doubt he wants to be successful.

Ireland have only reached six major tournaments in their history — three World Cups and three European championships — so that shows you how difficult it is. 

Stephen will be under no illusions that we want to qualify. Of course, fans like to see attractive football and it is great to have new lads coming through, but he will be judged on more than that. 

They go into the Luxembourg game knowing they need to get three points on Saturday. It is crucial to put that first win on the board as we don’t want this run to drag on any longer.

I hope it doesn’t turn into one of those tricky fixtures that we’ve had in the past. I’d like to see us score an early goal, settle the nerves down and then go play.

I really don’t want it to be a game that drags on and boys end up firing the ball into the box in a panic to score.

We should have too much quality for them and it will be interesting to see the team Stephen picks as it’s a 72-hour turnaround.

A 1-0 win will do as you only get three points regardless of the scoreline. I’ll predict 2-0 to Ireland.

Serbia v Portugal, 7.45pm Saturday 

wcup-group-a-portugal-azerbaijan-soccer Cristiano Ronaldo in action against Azerbaijan. Source: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

We know the ridiculous amount of talent that Portugal have at their disposal, but the reigning European champions only managed a 1-0 win over Azerbaijan on Wednesday — thanks to an own goal. 

Serbia started with Mitrovic, Kostic, Luka Jovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic on the bench against Ireland, but I’d expect most of them to play in this one.

Is the best case scenario for Ireland that Portugal run away with the group, or that they draw to keep everyone in the mix? I’m leaning with the former. 

I think it will be an open game with a few goals. He might be 36, but in Cristiano Ronaldo, they’ve still got a game changer who can do anything. I’ll go with Portugal to win 2-1.

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