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Do you agree with our Ireland team to face Belgium?

Stephen Kenny has some tough calls to make.

The Irish team (file pic).
The Irish team (file pic).
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Goalkeeper

Caoimhin Kelleher and Gavin Bazunu have made a degree of progress at club level this season.

Kelleher was key to Liverpool’s League Cup final win over Chelsea, scoring the winning penalty in the shootout.

Bazunu has been similarly impressive, playing 45 times in all competitions and establishing himself as a key player for a Portsmouth side who are currently 10th in League One.

The former Shamrock Rovers youngster has been Kenny’s preferred choice in recent times, despite the strong competition provided by Kelleher.

Kenny may be inclined to experiment against more beatable opposition in the form of Lithuania on Tuesday while sticking to his strongest possible XI versus Belgium. If that proves to be the case, expect Bazunu to get the nod once again.

Bohemians’ James Talbot, meanwhile, has been consistently excellent in the Premier Division in recent times but is not expected to feature.

Defence

Kenny may be tempted to include one of the more inexperienced players in the backline, such as Nathan Collins or Dara O’Shea. The latter is clearly a favourite, having played in 10 out of 20 matches so far under Kenny, and that number would be higher were it not for a long-term injury suffered against Portugal that he has only recently recovered from.

However, O’Shea’s game time has been limited, starting just two games for West Brom since his comeback, and so he may have to be content with a place on the bench. Similarly, with regard to Collins, Ben Mee and James Tarkowski have been the preferred centre-back pairing at Burnley this season, though he still managed a creditable 12 appearances in all competitions since joining the Clarets last summer. The 20-year-old’s most recent outing was one to forget though, as he was sent off amid a 2-0 defeat at Brentford.

In addition, Jimmy Dunne’s late call-up is an indication of his progress with QPR of late, though it’s hard to imagine him being thrown straight into the team.

Consequently, Kenny may ultimately opt for the tried and tested trio of Seamus Coleman, Shane Duffy and John Egan.

Duffy had a good start to the season at Brighton but has been in and out of the team since then, starting in 15 of Brighton’s 29 Premier League games overall.

Coleman has featured 26 times in all competitions for Everton, though has faced criticism from Jamie Carragher among others with the relegation-threatened team struggling badly.

Egan has probably had the best season out of the three, making 44 appearances in all competitions, albeit he is lining out at a lower level, with Sheffield United currently fifth in the Championship.

Wing-backs

With Enda Stevens unavailable due to a calf injury, Kenny will likely pick James McClean at left wing-back. The 32-year-old has been a regular for Wigan, scoring eight goals in League One this season. Ryan Manning is the only obvious alternative and the 25-year-old has enjoyed a decent season with Championship side Swansea, playing 35 times in all competitions.

On the other side, Matt Doherty, who has made more starts than any other Ireland player under Kenny is expected to feature. Earlier in the season, his Tottenham career looked to be in jeopardy, as he was largely restricted to Europa League appearances under Nuno Espírito Santo. However, since Antonio Conte’s arrival, the Dubliner has enjoyed a new lease of life and has established himself as the preferred choice at right wing-back for Spurs. Coleman is the only obvious alternative for that position, but he will likely be deployed further back.

Midfield

Probably the area under Kenny with the least continuity. With 13 starts out of 20, Jeff Hendrick is the midfielder who has played the most under the current Ireland manager.

The 30-year-old has produced some encouraging performances for Ireland in recent times. At club level, he was deemed surplus to requirements by Newcastle in January but has received more game time since moving on loan to QPR, featuring nine times in the Championship this season, and starting six of those games.

Elsewhere, Josh Cullen has established himself as an important player under Kenny, having started all eight of Ireland’s World Cup qualifiers. The 25-year-old has also impressed with Anderlecht and made 42 appearances in all competitions overall.

Conor Hourihane, Jayson Molumby, Alan Browne and Mark Sykes have all picked up plenty of game time at their respective clubs but may have to be patient if Kenny opts for continuity from the World Cup qualification phase.

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Attack

Probably the area of the pitch where there is most scope for debate.

Callum Robinson and Chiedozie Ogbene were among the standout Ireland players towards the latter end of the World Cup qualifying campaign so it would be no surprise to see them being given the nod.

The identity of the third attacker is less predictable, particularly with Jamie McGrath, who enjoyed plenty of game time in the recent World Cup qualifiers, not even selected for the squad.

Injuries have restricted Jason Knight’s game time at international level of late, though the 21-year-old has impressed on more than one occasion when given the chance and he has also developed into an important player for Wayne Rooney’s Derby, featuring 32 times for the Rams this season.

Will Keane, Troy Parrott and Connor Ronan have all been in encouraging form of late for their clubs and Scott Hogan, despite having to be content with a place on the Birmingham bench at times, has 10 goals to his name this season.

At present though, none of the attackers seem undroppable, and so it’s games like Belgium where players need to prove their worth in these areas where places are ostensibly up for grabs.

Possible Ireland team to face Belgium: Bazunu, Coleman, Duffy, Egan; Doherty, McClean, Cullen, Hendrick; Ogbene, Robinson, Knight.

startingeleven

A new episode of The Front Row, in partnership with Guinness, is out now. After Ireland’s Triple Crown win, Murray Kinsella gives us the rundown on his team of the tournament. Ireland international Sene Naoupu also joins the panel to chat about her career and look ahead to the start of the Women’s Six Nations. Click here to subscribe or listen below:


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Paul Fennessy

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