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Ireland out to prove they can live easily with the favourites tag in Lithuania clash

Ireland end the March window with a lower-key friendly game in Dublin tonight.

Stephen Kenny with assistant boss Keith Andrews at training ahead of the meeting with Lithuania.
Stephen Kenny with assistant boss Keith Andrews at training ahead of the meeting with Lithuania.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

AND SO WE move on to accumulating the more mundane details of the FAI’s second century. 

The Association’s centenary was marked amid the crackle and fizz of Saturday’s meeting with Belgium, but now time rolls on to tonight’s friendly with Lithuania. Less glamorous opponents and a much lower-key occasion: the FAI are hoping to get around 30,000 people into the ground, a more-than respectable attendance but a precipitous drop from the 48,000 people who so patriotically booed Thierry Henry so at the weekend. 

Lithuania are the lowest-ranked opposition Ireland have faced since Andorra last summer, the game that finally delivered Stephen Kenny’s first win as Ireland manager. There were six excruciating minutes in that game when it felt like Kenny would never get that win, when Andorra took a shock lead when Ireland’s set-piece defending collapsed.

Troy Parrott then scored twice to shuck off the pressure, and a 4-1 victory has begotten happier things. Said pressure has now eased to the point that assistant manager Keith Andrews took the pre-game media duties: results and performances are doing more than enough talking for the manager now. (An inside baseball stat: no senior men’s national team manager among Uefa’s 55 member nations has done more press conference interviews than Stephen Kenny this season.) 

Andrews spoke for much longer than he was expected to, contrasting the Ireland team he and Kenny are building with those he played in. 

“Yes, I would have. I’m not sure he would have selected me!”, grinned Andrews when asked if he would have liked to play in a Kenny team. He elaborated on the differences.

“The Ireland team that I played in was very well organised, very difficult to break down. The main focus was what we did without the ball. There was a big reliance on the technical players with most ability, in an attacking sense. It was based around that with a manager that probably didn’t have enough belief in what we would do, or was stuck in the way he had always seen the game, and way he always coached. Stephen and myself see it differently and have tried to take the team in a different direction.” 

That’s plainly evident to anyone watching on. Ireland are developing a very clear identity and philosophy of play that’s bringing goals: add a brace tonight and it will be the first time Ireland will have scored at least two goals in three-straight games in eight years. 

But there is one thing left to prove. How comfortable is this Ireland side at breaking down opponents who sit deep against them at home? It has been an age-old problem, as being the protagonist has never suited Ireland and it’s as the counter-punching outsider when Kenny’s Ireland have been at their best.

Some big wins have come with remarkably little possession. For instance, Ireland won 3-0 in Baku – it might easily have been six – with just 36% of the ball. Against the lesser-ranked sides, an early goal has been liberating: see that win in Baku, or the 4-0 hammering of Qatar in Dublin. When that early goal hasn’t come, Ireland have often growing jittery and lost their conviction, see the winless home games against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg as the painful expressions of that reality. 

Hence Lithuania tonight will offer an interesting test, particularly if an early goal isn’t forthcoming. 

“It’s how you react to that. It’s not a panic”, says Andrews of that potential scenario. “We have to stick to the way we’re trying to play…It’s very much [about] sticking to the game plan and being respectful of them that at times they’re going to frustrate us, and potentially drop off.” 

Expect them to: Lithuania play a 4-4-1-1, so Ireland will likely be met by their old nemesis, Two Banks of Four. 

troy-parrott Troy Parrott. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Ireland’s system won’t change either, but their personnel will. Andrews says caps will not be handed out as consolation prizes but says those on the fringes deserve to have their professionalism rewarded, and so we may see returns for the likes of Dara O’Shea and Conor Hourihane. In a disappointment to headline writers everywhere, Andrews told us that “Troy is flying”, but that may mean Parrott is line for a first start since being part of the collective malfunction at home to Azerbaijan. 

Kenny spoke about building depth in the number 10 positions so we will surely see Mark Sykes and Connor Ronan at some point, though perhaps off the bench: his substitute cameos and fine club form means Will Keane may be owed a start. 

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Lithuania finished bottom of their World Cup qualifying group, losing home and away to Northern Ireland. Their only points came in a 3-1 win at home to Bulgaria, a team Ireland couldn’t beat in the 2020 Nations League. 

Ireland’s target is the next Nations League, with the triple reward of higher Euro qualifying seeding, the guarantee of a Euros play-off and promotion to League A in store if they can top their group. That is the stated aim, and tonight is the last act of on-pitch preparation before a competition with which they’ll enter with a fair degree of expectation. 

A comfortable win tonight would be proof they can live with that. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Caoimhín Kelleher; Dara O’Shea, Shane Duffy, John Egan; Matt Doherty; Josh Cullen, Conor Hourihane; Ryan Manning; Troy Parrott, Callum Robinson; Will Keane 

On TV: Sky Sports Arena; KO: 7.45pm

- Originally published at 06.00

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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