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Kenny's Ireland must avoid the failings of Luxembourg debacle in tricky Azerbaijan tie
A first competitive win is in sight at Lansdowne Road tonight, but the manager is stressing the need for intensity.

IRELAND FIND THEMSELVES on summer’s decline and in the same place as they were just before it began, needing to mint the progress shown in defeat away to vaunted opposition with victory at home to a lesser light. 

Ireland lost valiantly in Serbia last March and then squandered its benefits in that feckless, torpid loss to Luxembourg; Stephen Kenny needs his side to avoid the same trap this evening against Azerbaijan. 

stephen-kenny-dejected-at-the-end-of-the-game Tommy Dickson / INPHO Stephen Kenny in the immediate aftermath of the Luxembourg debacle. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

It was notable how often Kenny spoke of Ireland needing ‘intensity’ in his pre-match press conference, given he didn’t use the word at all when he spoke before the Luxembourg game.

“We need to start the game well”, said Kenny. “We need to bring a level of intensity to the game.” 

Forget what you’ve read about the worst being full of passionate intensity. Ireland were totally lacking in it that night, not managing a shot of any kind until the 18th minute and, in Kenny’s recurring phrase, “let themselves down.”

The returning crowd should inject the energy Kenny demands. The capacity is there for 25,000, though tickets were still on sale as of yesterday afternoon. 

If you’re going this evening, well, you haven’t missed much. Four games behind the Aviva Stadium’s locked gates have yielded two draws, two defeats, and zero goals. 

“I really, really needed the crowd back”, said Matt Doherty. “I feel I’m able to go to a different level of performance.” 

Doherty is available having struggled through illness in the second half of the Portugal game, but that paled in comparison when it came to accepting the result. 

“When you are sitting in your room at night you do think about it, and we had five minutes to hold out. I guess the worst thing is that we actually lost.” 

Doherty did reflect the general positivity toward the performance, saying Wednesday was proof that a year of muted toil is coming to fruition. “Our confidence with the ball, our confidence in our own ability, our confidence in our shape…we seem to be looking better, looking more of a threat going forward every time we play.”

matt-doherty Attila Trenka / INPHO Matt Doherty. Attila Trenka / INPHO / INPHO

But Ireland are at the stage where they desperately need to get some points on the board, partly to validate their work to date but also to maintain their slim, slim chances of getting to the World Cup. Leaders Portugal are 10 points ahead and look to be over the horizon, with Serbia seven points clear of Ireland in the play-off position. 

“We need to get a win anyway to get into the group”, said Doherty. “We know we’re going in the right direction in terms of performance, but we’re here to win games.” Kenny largely swerved the same question though admitted his side are in a difficult position. 

Here’s the rub: Ireland can take confidence from the Portugal game, but they can’t take from it much of a template to win this evening’s game.

In Faro, Ireland were a plot device to The Ronaldo Story; tonight they’ll be the protagonist.

Whereas Portugal left space for the Irish counter-attack to exploit, Azerbaijan will sit deep. They’ve averaged just 38% possession in their three group games to date, and WyScout stats show they have pressed less than any other team in the group. 

They are coached by Italian Gianni De Biasi – whose signature international achievement is leading Albania to Euro 2016 – and their record is very similar to Ireland’s, having lost three group games to Serbia, Luxembourg, and Portugal, all by a single goal.

They don’t score too many goals – four in their last nine competitive games – but they don’t concede often either, and have only lost by more than a goal once in the last two years.

Their chief attacker is Legia Warsaw forward Mahir Emreli, whom Dundalk fans may remember as the Qarabag goalscorer in the 1-1 draw at Oriel Park in the Champions League qualifiers two years ago.

sean-gannon-with-mahir-emreli Ryan Byrne / INPHO Mahir Emreli (left) wins an aerial challenge with Sean Gannon of Dundalk in 2019. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Nowadays he’s with Legia Warsaw, and scored three of Legia’s four goals across their two-legged Europa League play-off win against Slavia Prague before the international break. Emreli was left on the bench for the midweek loss to Luxembourg, though is expected to return against Ireland. 

Kenny gave his characteristically precise debrief of them when asked at his press conference, though did stress Ireland must focus on their own performance, again underlining the need for our old friend, intensity.

He has attributed part of that night’s lethargy to the fact the players uninvolved at club level were not able for a second game in four days, so there will likely be a refresh of parts of the team this evening, so Jeff Hendrick, Adam Idah, and Aaron Connolly look most likely to drop out. Dara O’Shea must also be replaced, as he is out with the ankle injury he picked up in Faro. 

Kenny, however, does have some additional options.

Callum Robinson and Alan Browne have linked up with the squad having been set free from their respective Covid isolations, though Browne has also been nursing an injury so he may be the lesser prepared of the two. Liam Scales, meanwhile, has been drafted in for the first time, days after completing his move to Celtic from Shamrock Rovers. 

liam-scales Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Liam Scales in training with Ireland. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Scales is left-footed and Kenny hailed his versatility – he can play at left centre-back, left-back, or left wing-back – and his call-up hints at what the manager may be targeting in this game: width. 

“We need good attacking play and we need to show out quality in wide areas and the interchange between the attacking players”, he said when asked what his side needed to do to pick apart the Azerbaijan defence. 

To facilitate that width, Kenny may look for a left-footer at left wing-back instead of the right-footed Doherty. James McClean is the obvious pick, but Ryan Manning, who is playing regularly at Championship level, may come into contention. 

Doherty is a Kenny favourite, is available and is in form, so he may revert to right wing-back, with Coleman replacing Dara O’Shea to the right of the back three, where he played against Serbia and Luxembourg. John Egan is a nailed-on starter; Shane Duffy’s threat on set pieces and good form means he will likely be retained. 

Kenny said Josh Cullen has no issue in playing again given his rhythm of games for Anderlecht, so he may also keep his place days after his best performance for Ireland. Conor Hourihane and Jayson Molumby are the prime alternatives, with Harry Arter also in the mix. 

callum-robinson Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Callum Robinson in Irish training. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

There may be more rotation further forward, where Kenny will surely be tempted to start the in-form Robinson straight away. Troy Parrott could come into contention too, while James Collins is next in line if it’s decided Idah needs a break. 

Regardless of who is picked, Ireland will maintain their commitment to playing how Stephen Kenny wants them to play.

“It is not unique to us. Most European teams are comfortable doing it. It is measuring the risk and certainly don’t give any goals away but, at the same time, to construct attacks there has to be an element of risk. The easy thing to say is ‘don’t take any risk and we kick everything long’ but that is not the approach we are adopting.”

Kenny batted away a question pondering whether the returning crowd should show patience with a style they have not been used to seeing from an Irish side, though it will be interesting to see whether any frustration crackles across the stands if Ireland struggle to break down Azerbaijan in the opening hour. 

That has been a recurring problem, given Ireland are hardly Europe’s picture of flat-track bullies.

They have scored more than one goal in a competitive home game just twice since the Euros play-off win against Bosnia almost six years ago and you have to go all the way back to a 7-0 win over a pitiful Gibraltar in October 2014 for the last time they scored more than twice in a competitive home game. 

These are the problems Stephen Kenny is trying to solve at his painstaking, Covid-hurdling pace. 

This is Ireland’s first-ever fixture with Azerbaijan, leaving Slovenia, Ukraine and Kosovo as the only Uefa-affiliated nations they have yet to face. All going to plan, this will precipitate a constellation of firsts, as the first post-pandemic crowd bears witness to a first competitive win of the Stephen Kenny era. 

Otherwise, all the progress evident in Faro will be subsumed to the sceptical question: if not now, then when? 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Bazunu; Doherty; Coleman, Duffy, Egan; Manning; Cullen, Hourihane; Parrott, Robinson; J Collins 

Azerbaijan (Possible XI): Magomedaliyev; Medvedev; B Hüseynov, Krivotsyuk, Badalov; Bayramov; Makhmudov, Garayev, Alasgarov; Ozobic, Emreli 

Referee: Jérôme Brisard (FRA); VAR: Stéphanie Frappart (FRA)

On TV: RTÉ Two; KO: 5pm

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