Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Laszlo Geczo/INPHO The Stade de Luxembourg.
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'British style' jibes provide a sideshow as Kenny and Ireland seek to end World Cup campaign on a high
Ireland are in Luxembourg to battle for third place in Group A and prove Stephen Kenny deserves a contract extension.

A BARELY PERCEPTIBLE smile crept across the face of Luxembourg manager Luc Holtz as he took a knife to all our bold tales of revolution.

“In the last matches they played more with the style that they played for 100 years, it was more British style. This fighting spirit, more long balls, more contacts…I think Ireland is in good shape.”

It felt more backhand than compliment. Particularly considering that among Stephen Kenny’s first comments as Irish manager was his voicing a desire to break Ireland’s association with a “British style of football.” 

Kenny didn’t wade into any deep discussion of Holtz’ comments when they were put to him, though curtly rejected them. 

“I don’t really have any reaction. Anyone can say anything. I have no reaction to that. It’s certainly not accurate.” When the topic was returned to later in his pre-match press conference, Kenny did say that a “long pass is a good pass as well, if everyone commits and crowds in space and leaves Chiedozie [Ogbene] one-on-one.” 

Holtz did have the grain of a fair point before he freighted it with Irish football’s unique baggage. Since the wretched nadir against Holtz and his side on that lonely, sodden March night, it’s true that Ireland have varied their play. 

On that night they consistently failed to play through the Luxembourg press, and they have since reacted by playing more long balls. They played 5.75% of their passes long (further than 25 metres) at home to Luxembourg; the average figure for the same stat across the nine games since is twice that. 

In the game in March, Ireland desperately struggled with Luxembourg’s press, and lacked an alternate option to exploit the space behind their opposition. Chiedozie Ogbene’s performance against Portugal on Thursday night is testament to the fact they have since addressed that problem. 

“Over the course of 90 minutes you can’t continue to play in little pockets or play out because it’s a game of cat and mouse, and at times they will press you”, said captain Seamus Coleman.

“When teams go to press you, when you have the pace we have with Chieo and Callum [Robinson], that’s another thing that we can utilise.

“I didn’t hear him [Holtz] say that but if he thinks that is long ball, well, of course it is at times if they press you up but no, that wouldn’t have been a tactic, no.”

It was an interesting intervention by Holtz into Ireland’s own, isolated melodrama.

Tonight’s game is a battle for third place – Ireland have to win to salvage the finishing place the seedings expected – but it’s primarily a stress test of the progress made since the defeat to Luxembourg in March, and this will be the final piece of evidence to be submitted before the cases regarding Kenny’s contract are made around the FAI boardroom table. 

Luxembourg are improved and with three wins so far, Holtz says this is already their most successful qualification campaign regardless of what happens against Ireland.

That said, they have not hit great heights since beating Ireland: they have been hammered away to Portugal and Serbia while they only broke down Azerbaijan in Baku this week after their opponents had a man sent off. 

They are understrength tonight, too, as their captain Dirk Carlson is suspended while goalkeeper Anthony Moris is out having tested positive for Covid. 

Ireland’s only injury concern is Andrew Omobamidele, though Kenny said he is optimistic he will be fit.

stephen-kenny-speaks-to-the-media Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Stephen Kenny. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Kenny’s side come into the game off the back of a fine performance against Portugal, but they have been here before: their showing in Faro precipitated a drab 1-1 draw at home to Azerbaijan. 

“We don’t want to play Portugal – play extremely well in front of a full house – and come over here and lower our standards”, said Kenny. 

“The quick turnaround is something we are very aware of, I said that to the players. Against Portugal there was such an energy in the stadium. It was a privilege to be a part of that. It was exceptional. Coming off that to get to those levels again is psychologically important to us. We have no excuses for that. That’s what we are aiming for. We’ve got to go and make sure we are absolutely ready for that and try to get the victory.”

Kenny will be tempted to freshen up his team, but, contrary to his manager’s words last week, Seamus Coleman doesn’t believe his fragile hamstrings need to be taken out of the firing line. 

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“I feel good, like everyone in the dressing room it takes a couple of days to recover but I feel fine and good and ready to go.

“I always put it this way: if I’m fit, I’m fit. Whether that be for Everton or Ireland, I will give my all. I’ve had a few niggles and sometimes if I was like maybe another player and putting myself first then maybe the niggles wouldn’t reoccur, but for me personally I will always push the boundaries and I won’t give it the correct time frame that is needed.

“If the team needs me – Everton or Ireland – I’m there for the team and I will do all I can to play. What happens tomorrow is up to Ireland but I feel fine and fit and ready to go. The recurring injuries is more so because I don’t think about myself before the team.” 

Ireland avoided any suspensions against Portugal, so all of Bazunu, Doherty, Duffy, Egan, Cullen, Hendrick and Robinson will play. If the emphasis is on energy and a quick start, James Mcclean may get the nod over Enda Stevens in the razor-thin left wing-back selection. 

The chief conundrum is whether to introduce Adam Idah – impressive off the bench against Portugal – or retain Ogbene and Jamie McGrath in support of Robinson. 

Ireland have undoubtedly improved since the horror show against Luxembourg in March, with time the key ingredient: Enda Stevens spoke earlier this week of the players having greater “connectedness”, and of being more aware of each other’s position when in possession.

Ireland’s conviction on the ball has greatly improved as a result, and tonight should be a world away from the feeble, diffident operation we saw in March. 

With Covid restrictions unwound, this will be the first-ever capacity crowd at the new Stade de Luxembourg, and Holtz said it’s a measure of his side’s progress that so many of the locals want to turn out to watch them, rather than the occasional star-studded opponent. Ireland were not considered among that cast. 

Ireland have made great progress since losing to Luxembourg in March – tonight they must merely go and prove it. 

Luxembourg (Possible XI): Schon; Jans, Chanot, Skenderovic, Pinto; Sinani, Barreiro, Martins Pereira, O Thill, Borges Sanches; Rodrigues 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Bazunu; Doherty; Coleman, Duffy, Egan; McClean; Cullen, Hendrick; McGrath, Ogbene; Robinson 

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