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Ireland have nothing to lose as Ronaldo and Portugal arrive for a great Aviva occasion
Tonight, there will be a capacity crowd at an Irish game in Dublin for the first time in two years.

IT’S A GAME of no consequence for Ireland and of lesser meaning to Portugal and yet it’s the biggest football game held here in two years. 

It is a World Cup qualifier in name and name only; it exists separate to its spoils and competition thanks to its union of characters and context. 

ireland-fans-celebrate-matt-dohertys-goal Ryan Byrne / INPHO Irish fans on the last occasion the Aviva Stadium was filled for an Irish international: 18 November 2019. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Cristiano Ronaldo has his own gravitational pull at this stage, and you’ll see Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota, Joao Felix, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias obediently orbiting him.

Ireland, meanwhile, are more interesting than they have been in years: a blend of fresh blood and refreshed veterans mixed by a manager to whom indifference is impossible. 

And, above all, this is the first Irish international football match to be held in front of a capacity crowd at the Aviva Stadium in two years. 

We have now learned that there will not be one great moment of collective ecstasy to mark the official end of the pandemic, but when 52,000 people shake off their diffidence and allow their voices coalesce in throaty roar at the crescendo of the national anthem…well, that may be as close as we will ever get. 

Ireland versus Portugal means nothing in the wider scheme of things but we’ve all spent almost two years balancing our own passions and desires against The Wider Scheme of Things, so tonight is a chance to indulge them once again and suspend perspective for a while. 

This game is to be enjoyed – and at times endured – solely for what it is, and even the media-driven noise around Stephen Kenny’s position is in abeyance. Sunday’s game with Luxembourg is the more relevant as to whether he deserves his contract extension. 

“It is 14 months since my first match in September and we had a year of empty stadiums”, said Kenny yesterday. “It was a bit soulless when it’s empty like that, and when you go to 25000, it’s such a difference, and 52,000 for this game, it’s amazing. It’s the first game since restrictions were lifted.

“We are very enthused by that, excited by that, and the players are motivated by that and they deserve to feel the affection of the support as they have been showing their talent over the past couple of windows. The connection between the team and the supporters: we want to see that continue to grow.” 

Ireland have nothing to lose but Portugal are in a queasier spot. They trail group leaders Serbia by a point but this is their game in hand and they then play their closest rivals on Sunday. 

cristiano-ronaldo-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-second-goal Ryan Byrne / INPHO Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates his second goal in Portugal's dramatic 2-1 win over Ireland in Faro in September. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Regardless of what happens tonight, Portugal cannot afford to lose to Serbia.

And regardless of what happens tonight, Portugal will qualify automatically for the World Cup if they beat Serbia. 

A win or draw against Ireland will merely give them extra wriggle room: in that event, a draw against Serbia will be enough to seal top spot. 

So, to what game should Fernando Santos give preponderance? He deftly said nothing when asked at his press conference so it is his team selection that will speak for him.

Cancelo, Dias, Jota, William Palhinha, Renato Sanches and Jose Fonte will all miss the game in Serbia if they are booked tonight, so Santos may be tempted to rest at least some of them tonight.

Cancelo is the least replaceable of the sextet: Santos yesterday described him as the best full-back in the world, while it is through him they usually build from the back and his crossing ability makes Ronaldo look even better than he is. 

Though he may have to play. Nuno Mendes is suspended and Raphael Guerreiro is injured, leaving Portugal short on left-back options, where Cancelo plays  for Manchester City. In that event, Diogo Dalot is likely to come in on the other flank. 

It is on that right wing where Ireland have spied a weakness. 

aaron-connolly-and-joao-cancelo Ryan Byrne / INPHO Joao Cancelo challenges Aaron Connolly. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

In Faro, Ireland targeted and exploited the space right-back Cancelo left behind him, which the nigh-geriatric Pepe couldn’t cover. Ireland had five shots from open play in that game: all five came from putting the ball into space in that area.

It has been a recurring weakness for Portugal, most notably at the Euros when Cancelo’s hapless replacement Nelson Semedo was shredded by Robin Gosens and a very ordinary Germany team. 

Aaron Connolly was deployed in that role in Faro but his form has vanished to the point that he has too. Callum Robinson didn’t play in Portugal as he had Covid – let’s not go there – and he must start, so his role is likely to be in Connolly’s stead with Jamie McGrath playing off the other side to drop into midfield to plug some gaps. 

If Adam Idah isn’t deemed fit – he has had all of 26 minutes for Norwich since the last window – then Robinson may start centrally with Chiedozie Ogbene’s pace offering a significant threat behind Cancelo. 

That is if Ireland play solely on the counter-attack, which is not Kenny’s ambition. 

“I think that it is important that we bring calm to our play and bring a level of composure to our play. Sometimes when that happens people expect you to get forward more quickly.

“We must have the courage to play out . We must not be fearful in that regard. We can bring calm to our play and ensure that we give ourselves the option that whoever is in possession has the required number of options.

“Our movement off the ball has to be of a high level. We have to play with intelligence and try to have some sort of control on the game.”

Jayson Molumby is out while Andrew Omobamidele is doubtful with an injury sustained on club duty last Saturday.

Seamus Coleman is a potential replacement in the back three, but given Kenny said last week he doesn’t feel his captain’s fragile hamstrings can handle two competitive games in four days and he may be kept in reserve for Sunday and Nathan Collins given the nod for a first competitive start instead. 

Collins is also very tall, and it will be to his part of the penalty area Ronaldo will most often peel off to. 

That aside, much of the Ireland team picks itself at this point: Bazunu, Duffy, Egan, Cullen and Hendrick are locked into their positions. Matt Doherty will play, it is merely a question of where: he played on the left in Faro but if Coleman isn’t involved he will be at right wing-back.

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James McClean’s enduring tenacity has seen him leapfrog Enda Stevens in the ranks on the other flank. 

As for Portugal, Bernardo Silva will be absent but Joao Felix is nobody’s idea of a glaring step down. 

Ronaldo will play because Ronaldo always plays, so it is just a matter of who Santos picks to pad out the background.

Bruno Fernandes will likely play in midfield though potentially out wide in Bernardo’s absence if Jota and Felix are not picked as a pair. 

 

seamus-coleman-with-stephen-kenny Ben Brady / INPHO Seamus Coleman and Stephen Kenny in conversation at the Aviva Stadium on the eve of the match. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Leipzig striker Andre Silva – brought on at half-time against Ireland in September – may play either, though as an out-and-out centre-forward will push Ronaldo slightly further to the left. 

Santos has warned his side not to allow the game become as broken as it did after Bazunu’s penalty save in Faro; to avoid a game of “attack, counter-attack, attack, counter-attack.”

Imagine the noise in Dublin 4 if that is what the game becomes. 

Portugal are daunting opponents but they are vulnerable too, while Ireland evinced sufficient craft and courage and craft in September to sow the seeds of a lovely optimism best expressed with a, ‘Maybe…you just never know.’ 

Ireland’s World Cup campaign is long dead and Portugal’s won’t die tonight either but occasions like these animate themselves; a largely unimportant game made important for precisely that reason. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Gavin Bazunu; Nathan Collins, Shane Duffy, John Egan; Matt Doherty; Jeff Hendrick, Josh Cullen; James McClean; Jamie McGrath, Callum Robinson; Adam Idah 

Portugal (Possible XI): Rui Patricio; Diogo Dalot, Pepe, Ruben Dias, Joao Cancelo; Danilo Pereira, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Moutinho; Diogo Jota, Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Felix

On TV: RTE Two, Sky Sports ; KO 7.45pm 

– First published 06.00, 11 November 

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