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Do you agree with our Ireland team to face Portugal?

Stephen Kenny faces several tough calls ahead of Wednesday’s qualifier.
Aug 30th 2021, 8:00 PM 59,539 52

Updated at 18.52

Goalkeeper

IT’S NOT easy to single out any Irish goalkeeper as the definite number one going forward. Darren Randolph had been the nailed-on first choice for a number of years, but the 34-year-old’s lack of first-team football at West Ham cost him a place in the squad this time around.

That leaves Gavin Bazunu, Caoimhín Kelleher and James Talbot as the players who made the cut. Kelleher was in line to start the opening qualifier against Serbia, but injury put paid to those hopes. Mark Travers then came in for a difficult competitive debut against Serbia, as he was arguably at fault for two of the goals in the 3-2 defeat. He did make the initial squad for Portugal, but a late withdrawal means the uncapped Talbot takes his place.

Since making his debut in the Luxembourg match, Bazunu has been entrusted with the number one jersey. Unlike Kelleher, he has been playing regularly at club level, impressing on loan at Portsmouth, and so the 19-year-old will likely be given the nod to play on Wednesday.

Defence

Certainly, the area of the field where Stephen Kenny has the strongest available options, to the extent that Ciaran Clark, who started against Serbia and Luxembourg and is one of the few Irish players with Premier League football under their belt this season, has not made the squad. Andrew Omobamidele and Nathan Collins have obvious potential, but it’s hard to imagine either starting in Faro given their lack of experience.

John Egan has been a favourite under Kenny and while absent during previous qualifiers, will likely come back into the fold again. Seamus Coleman started the previous two qualifiers as part of a three-man defence and looks odds-on to do so again.

The third spot looks like a tight call between Dara O’Shea and Shane Duffy. Both players have had excellent starts to the season at club level. What could potentially swing the balance in O’Shea’s favour is the fact that he has experience playing as the left-sided defender in a back three this season (he has also been picked on the right) whereas Duffy has either been selected in the centre of a back three or a four-man defence.

Many Ireland managers in the past would opt for Duffy as the more experienced of the two, but for Kenny, tactics often trump personnel — virtually every big-name player, including Duffy and Seamus Coleman, has been left out at one point or another.

That said, the Brighton star’s encouraging recent club form and man-of-the-match display the last time he wore green could just as easily swing the call in his favour.

Wing-backs

If Coleman is selected further back and assuming Kenny persists with the 3-5-2 he started with for the two previous qualifiers, then Matt Doherty is the obvious choice at right wing-back. The 29-year-old has not had the best of starts to the season — an 83rd-minute cameo against Man City is his only Premier League appearance thus far in the new campaign, though he also started both their Europa Conference League games. Yet with no direct alternative, he is expected to feature prominently in the upcoming qualifiers.

With Enda Stevens injured, left wing-back is less clear cut. Ryan Manning has had a good start to the season with Swansea, winning the man-of-the-match award in their clash against Sheffield United, while Kenny went to watch him play in the team’s recent 1-0 win over Bristol City. But Manning was not involved in the previous qualifiers and has generally been on the periphery of the team under Kenny, so the Irish boss may opt for the experience of James McClean, who after being frozen out at Stoke, is back playing in League One after rejoining Wigan recently.

Midfield

Midfield is an area of concern. Jayson Molumby, Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane have yet to play a minute of action in the Premier League this season for their respective clubs. Harry Arter has also been frozen out at Championship strugglers Nottingham Forest. Hourihane has today signed for Sheffield United on loan and others could complete moves before the transfer window closes tomorrow evening.

That leaves just Josh Cullen and Jamie McGrath — the latter has been playing well, albeit for a St Mirren team recently thrashed 6-0 by Celtic. Cullen has similarly been a regular for an Anderlecht team that are currently 12th in the Belgian league amid a disappointing start to the season that also saw them dumped out of the Europa Conference League by Vitesse. Cullen has been a favourite under Kenny though, starting both qualifiers so far, and the 25-year-old will likely feature again this week.

The Irish boss has also shown plenty of faith in Molumby, starting the midfielder against Serbia and bringing him off the bench in the Luxembourg game, and with Ireland unlikely to see much of the ball, his energetic presence will likely be an asset, particularly with one of his main rivals for the spot, Jason Knight, out injured.

McGrath only made his international debut off the bench against Andorra back in June and so is unlikely to be thrown in from the start.

Consequently, the final midfield spot appears to be a close call between Hendrick and Hourihane — and the latter’s greater goal threat and set-piece prowess might just give him the edge on this occasion.

Attack

Another area where the selections aren’t exactly straightforward. If the 3-5-2 system is continued, then Daryl Horgan and Ronan Curtis are likely to miss out, as attacking wingers who don’t appear to fit that style.

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That leaves Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah, James Collins, Shane Long and Troy Parrott vying for the two spots up front.

Long has been used as an impact sub in both qualifiers under Kenny and so it would be a surprise if he played from the outset. 

Collins was disappointing when handed a start in the 1-0 loss to Luxembourg and you get the sense that might have been his big opportunity.

Idah was unavailable for the previous two qualifiers as well as the Slovakia play-off, but Kenny has shown a willingness to play him on several other occasions. Despite being restricted to two substitute appearances this season, the manager may feel his pace on the break will be beneficial to the Boys in Green.

Similarly, Aaron Connolly, in spite of having just 45 minutes of first-team football under his belt this season, will fancy his chances of playing and adding more speed to the Irish counter-attack.

Troy Parrott, who scored an impressive brace in the summer win over Andorra and has started the season well with MK Dons, could also be an outside bet to start.

Predicted Ireland XI: Bazunu; Doherty, Coleman, Egan, Duffy, McClean; Cullen, Molumby, Hourihane; Idah, Connolly.

startingeleven

- Originally published at 17:40

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Paul Fennessy

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