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Kenny aiming to keep the momentum rolling as Qatar come to Dublin
The manager is now aiming for a first home win, before a sell-out crowd at the Aviva Stadium.

LAST UPDATE | Oct 12th 2021, 7:59 AM

IRELAND WILL RUN out at the Aviva Stadium for tonight’s friendly against Qatar wearing blue tonight, but don’t fear, a change of kit colour is not the latest decree of Stephen Kenny’s revolution.

It’s a one-off, special centenary kit, to mark the fact Ireland – or the Football Association of the Irish Free State as we were then known – wore blue in their first official international, against Bulgaria at the 1924 Olympics.

stephen-kenny-and-callum-robinson Dan Sheridan / INPHO Stephen Kenny and Callum Robinson in training yesterday. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Stephen Kenny’s first game in charge was against Bulgaria too and much has changed in the 13 months since.

Older faces have been eased out and youth infused; the backroom team has changed twice and the formation thrice; and the style of play has changed from a pass-at-all-costs team not scoring goals to a more pragmatic, counter-attacking side creating more chances but conceding them too. There’s also been a first competitive win. 

The Chelsea-inflected 3-4-2-1 formation was first debuted in the March friendly with Qatar, and it’s been here to stay since. 

“It is the realisation that, it’s possibly fair to say that 60 to 70% of our best players are defenders”, said Kenny when asked what prompted the change from the back four we saw in 2020.

“There’s the three emerging centre-backs coming through at their clubs, Andrew Omobamidele, Dara O’Shea and Nathan Collins. We’ve got players who can play wingback at their clubs. We can shape our team around that and it can be tactically flexible against the better nations. The flexibility within that gives us a better chance against the better nations. What we’ve got to improve on is that aspect against teams we’re capable of beating.”

The team selection tonight will be a further nod to Kenny’s realisation that, for the future to exist, the present must be tended to. Caoimhin Kelleher will replace Gavin Bazunu in goal and make his full international debut, but there won’t be many changes beyond that. 

“There won’t be wholesale changes. It’s a great game for us to build on Saturday night.  We’re at home and we’d like to get a home victory but at the same time we’ve got to balance it and see the big picture, with Caoimhin’s selection and so forth. There won’t be wholesale changes but there will be some.” 

The aim will be to keep the momentum gathered in Baku, and turn the ‘one-defeat-in-seven’ incantation into ‘back-to-back wins.’ 

Of the changes that may be made, Nathan Collins may make his senior debut at centre-back: now at Burnley having been Stoke City’s youngest-ever captain, Collins has been name-checked by Kenny for a year now. Josh Cullen may miss out in midfield with a knee injury while Daryl Horgan is struggling with a knock, too, but Jason Knight has recovered from illness and may step right back into the starting team. 

Enda Stevens may return having failed to instantly win his place back in Azerbaijan, but otherwise Kenny will use this game as a chance to further road-test his new system as he builds the consistency he was denied in the dark Covid autumn of 2020. 

Saturday’s win does muffle some of the noise around Kenny, and it comes at a time that a couple of factors pointed to by his detractors have not proved to be undermining.

The attendance at this glamour-free friendly had been cast as a kind of referendum on the manager, but the FAI are expecting to sell out the 25,000 tickets they have been allowed to sell, so that criticism has withered and died. 

caoimhin-kelleher Evan Treacy / INPHO Caoimhin Kelleher at yesterday's pre-match press conference. Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Sure, the tickets have been reasonably priced, but as has been pointed out to Kenny: a previous regime struggled to get 25,000 into the ground for these types of games, and they were giving tickets away for free. 

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Kenny has likened Qatar to a club side, such has been the frequency of their games, as they bid to cobble together a competitive team at the World Cup they are farcically hosting. They have been competing in Asian qualifiers, the Concacaf Gold Cup, in non-competitive games in Ireland’s World Cup group, and another appearance at the Copa America was scuppered by the pandemic. 

Their recent results have been poor, however: they’ve lost four of their last five games, with the only mild respite the 1-1 draw with Luxembourg. 

Kenny acknowledged Ireland must improve at breaking down the sides who come to defend deep in Dublin, though he doesn’t expect Qatar to do so, defining them as an attacking side at his pre-match press conference. 

He also spoke of wanting his players and the fans to simply experience a win in Dublin: Ireland haven’t won a home game of any hue in almost two years. 

If Ireland can tick that box tonight they can finally leave behind a window that doesn’t require a fraught and frenzied inquest: progress for all involved 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Kelleher; N Collins, Duffy, Egan; Doherty; Knight, Hendrick; Stevens; McGrath, Robinson; Idah

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