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Stephen Kenny fighting for his future in dead-rubber qualifier with Azerbaijan

The manager says his side have ‘learned lessons’ as they seek to win a first competitive game of his tenure.

BAKU IS AN ungainly collision of old with new; shimmering glass towers sprouting awkwardly from centuries-old stone. 

As a metaphor for the Stephen Kenny project, the tension of the Baku skyline is unsubtle but no less apt. When tradition and modernity clash…well, it’s not always pretty. 

For Ireland it’s been a one-win-in-16-games kind of unpretty. 

But perhaps Baku can be the site – and Azerbaijan the antagonists – of Kenny’s first competitive win as Ireland manager. 

stephen-kenny A pensive Kenny at Irish training. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

This is a game freighted with a meaning different to what was hoped for: the qualification campaign is long dead, so this will be presented as one of the books of evidence as to whether the FAI board should extend Kenny’s contract for the Euro 2024 campaign.

That discussion will be held after the final qualifying game next month, and with Portugal and Luxembourg to come, tonight offers Kenny his best chance at finally landing the win he needs. 

Mind you, that’s what we wrote before the Azeris came to Dublin a month ago, with Ireland needing a late Shane Duffy header to save a 1-1 draw. Kenny has had time to conduct his inquest into that game and says Ireland need to up their intensity levels tonight and press better without the ball.

“We have to have a more cohesive out-of-possession plan” was the manager’s message.  Ireland fell behind just before half-time to a stunning – albeit invited – long-range effort from Emin Mahmudov, and chased the game in the second half by putting crosses into the box: 30 of them, in total, almost twice what they have averaged in each of their qualification games before hand.

Kenny explained that tactic was partly down to the dynamic of the game and the Azeri’s deep defending, but did concede that “we need to maybe play through teams better than we did.” 

That venue should help in that regard.

“Azerbaijan are at home so they won’t sit off us, I don’t think”, says Kenny. “They didn’t sit off Serbia, they’ll want to have a go. They’ll have a go, which gives you an opportunity of doing that better than we did in the first half against Azerbaijan.” 

shane-duffy-reacts-after-a-missed-chance Shane Duffy reacts to a missed chance against Azerbaijan last month. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For that, pace will be essential in the Irish forward line, and so Aaron Connolly will likely keep his place. Kenny has placed a lot of faith in Connolly – saying last month he believed he has thus far shown only 70% of his potential – but has also acknowledged that, two years on from his break-out showing against Spurs, Connolly’s career has stalled. 

Pressing and defensive awareness are among the weakest aspects of Connolly’s game, though, and given the manager’s admission that Ireland need to be better without the ball, there is a slight chance Chiedozie Ogbene will be preferred instead. 

Kenny must also hope that Adam Idah shakes off the fever which has confined him to his hotel room thus far: he and Jason Knight have been struggling with an illness that has, mercifully, been confirmed as Not Covid.

Callum Robinson has been the central character in this camp’s Covid Drama, with John Egan and Kenny each issuing a strong defence at yesterday’s press conference. “He didn’t come out and say he was against the vaccination so I was quite disappointed to see how many people jumped down his throat”, said Egan. “Whether to get the vaccination or not, it’s a personal choice. As a team-mate and a friend, I back my team-mates and I back my friends.”

Kenny, meanwhile, said Robinson has been “vilified” for his honesty before the press, and then delivered a paean to his character and enthusiasm…though will regret clumsily describing him as “infectious.” 

He also dropped a strong hint that Robinson will start this evening. “It is well-documented that he has missed a number of games so he determined to grab the opportunity and do himself justice. No doubt, he is one of our better attacking players and will be looking forward to getting on the pitch and doing well.”

If Idah is unavailable, James Collins has been next in line to date, though Kenny may instead had an instant debut to new recruit Will Keane. 

will-keane Will Keane in training with Ireland. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

While there are a handful of injuries – Seamus Coleman most obviously, Ryan Manning and Dara O’Shea too – the team are finally beginning to build some kind of rhythm. “We have had a consistency in selection in terms of our system, we are building a way of playing”, says Kenny. “We are improving a lot of the stuff we are doing. We need to get better and try and get that win.”

That would suggest he will stick by his 3-4-1-2 system, meaning teenager Andrew Omobamidele will likely keep his place with Coleman and O’Shea absent, while John Egan will captain the side and Shane Duffy is undroppable once again. 

Matt Doherty will be the right wing-back while there’s a decision to make on the other flank: stick with James McClean, or bring back the returning Enda Stevens?  As for midfield: Josh Cullen has established himself, while Jeff Hendrick’s energy means he may get the nod ahead of Conor Hourihane and Knight.The latter, if fit, has been favoured further forward under Kenny. 

Azerbaijan are a point behind Ireland and at the foot of the table, and are precisely what we saw in Dublin: defensively numerous and doughty, offensively reliant on Makhmudov and Mahir Emreli, the Legia Warsaw striker recently spotted scoring against Leicester City in the Europa League.  

Curiously, Azerbaijan’s Italian manager Gianni De Biasi is in a similar position to Kenny: his contract is up at the end of the campaign, and is battling to prove he deserves an extension. “No way”, he said when he was asked if he’s under pressure. “I have 30 years of experience. [The Azeri FA] will decide and evaluate my work, see what we have done in 14 months. Of the 16 games, 13 were played away. This is a special case. The team is developing.” 

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He also described the draw in Dublin as a case of them “losing two points.”

“We learned lessons from the Azerbaijan game I feel”, says Kenny. 

“There are no formalities. Portugal did beat them 3-0 but the other games were tough. Portugal beat them with an own-goal [in Baku], two goals from Mitrovic [won the game] for Serbia, so they won’t make it easy.

“I think we’re well capable of winning tonight.” 

The manager has answered the question as to whether Ireland can win and the FAI board will ultimately decide whether Ireland must win. 

And will they win? 

Consider that it’s four years to the day since Ireland beat Wales 1-0 in Cardiff, and since then, they’ve won a single competitive away game, and that came in Gibraltar. And that it’s five years to the day since Ireland beat anyone away from home by more than a single goal. 

So if Ireland do get their win, it will likely be narrow and fraught. 

And if it’s more comfortable than that, then Kenny will leave Baku knowing the worst of the growing pains are behind him. 

Azerbaijan (Possible XI): Magomedaliev; Salhali, Haggverdi, Krivotsyuk; Medvedev Garayev, Ozobic, Makhmudov; T Bayramov; Emreli, Alaskarov 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Bazunu; Omobamidele, Duffy, Egan (captain); Doherty; Cullen, Hendrick; Stevens; Robinson; Connolly, Idah 

Referee: Espen Eskås (Norway)

On TV: RTE Two, Sky Sports; KO 5pm 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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