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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
PA Stephen Kenny.
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Ireland's desperately-needed win looking unlikely against high-flying Serbia
Ireland are on the cusp of mathematical elimination, with their manager under increasing pressure.

IRELAND’S WORLD CUP campaign is effectively dead but, don’t fear, we’ll keep ourselves busy by arguing among ourselves. 

And few figures have stood as neatly on the fault lines of an Irish football argument as Stephen Kenny, who has become the latest figure over whom the public and media are fighting the fraught war of what Irish football should be, which is largely becoming a re-enactment of Irish football’s eternal anxiety about its ability to run its own affairs. 

The ongoing arguments that only with Kenny can Ireland commit to progressive style and reattach the national team as the apex to its national league are as dubious as those who are writing Kenny off as not being good enough as he hasn’t succeeded outside of said national league. 

Think of Stephen Kenny as a kind of Irish football version of Helen of Troy: the man who launched a thousand takes. 

This fiery debate seems to have been raging around Kenny since he took the job, and it continues as his side haven’t produced the results to extinguish it. With zero competitive wins in 10 attempts, the qualification campaign is at risk of being mathematically euthanised tonight, just five games in. 

If Ireland don’t win tonight, it’s officially over. 

Kenny is, of course, not neutral in these arguments, and the wan, forlorn figure in the aftermath of the Azerbaijan draw was yesterday replaced his more punky, assertive self. 

“I think there’s been real progress overall to be honest”, he said with voice rising. “That’s the way I see it, the way my staff and all the coaches see it, and there are a lot of people behind us. There are a lot of people who aren’t, who say ‘That’s not your job to develop the game here, your job is just to win the next game’.

“That kind of near-sightedness doesn’t create anything, you might beat teams that you should beat but you’ll never beat the teams you strive to beat. You’re trying to build something tangible over a period of time and that can be successful.” 

He also let slip the quiet part out loud. 

“We certainly have a plan in place. I made the decision – right or wrong – that we would build this squad to be a really, really competitive team to qualify for [European Championships in] Germany 2024.” 

Kenny has always spoken without specifics of “building a team for the future”, but this is the first time he has explicitly mentioned that competition. This is a fundamental realignment of expectation, and casts a slightly different hue on his games thus far. 

For instance, were his quartet of U21s – Connolly, Idah, Molumby, and Parrott – all picked against Azerbaijan because they were genuinely the best players for that game, or did they get the nod because the priority is a campaign in 18 months’ time? 

This is a risky game for the manager to play, to focus on a qualification campaign for which he does not have a contract, and he was slightly evasive when asked whether the Euro 2024 plan was articulated to the FAI when he first took over. 

“I think the FAI knew when I was appointed that they had good players coming through the system and would have been realistic that we hadn’t qualified for the World Cup in more than 20 years, and the difficulty qualifying now with just one group winner qualifying. They knew that would be difficult. We discussed it but I am not really going to go into internal discussions between myself and everybody else within the FAI.” 

But Kenny has laid his cards out, and the primary drama for the rest of this campaign will be whether he gets a contract renewal. Asked whether he needs to win soon to able to point at when the FAI begin these discussions, Kenny said, “The answer to that is that I don’t know.”

But he does know: he needs a win. The players need a win. Everybody needs a win. 

Kenny needs a win to douse the noise about his position, and it’s becoming increasingly clear the players need a win to steady their nerves, too. There are competing views on the quality of the performance against the Azerbaijan, but the line from the Irish camp is it was imperfect, but good. 

James McClean pointed to Ireland’s strong start in the opening 15 minutes on Saturday – they created three goalscoring chances in the first 10 minutes – and said minutes 15 to 45 were unacceptable. Why?

“I wouldn’t say an energy thing. I would say a confidence thing. We haven’t won in such a long time.” 

Expected goals (xG) stats are not universally loved, but it’s worth referencing them given how difficult it is to find cold and neutral assessments of Ireland under Kenny. The metric measures the quality of goalscoring chances created across a game, and, according to WyScout, the xG stats read 2.05 for Ireland, and 0.28 for Azerbaijan. (Ireland took 19 shots from positions that would yield an average two goals.)

Dig into the numbers a little deeper, and you’ll find that Ireland’s three best chances, according to the xG metric, all came in the first half and all came from attacks down the right wing.

This was the game-plan: to station the left-sided attacker (Connolly) near the touchline and drag the Azerbaijan defence over to him, to leave space for quick switches of play to Matt Doherty and Seamus Coleman, the wing on which Ireland are more of a threat going forward. 

It worked, but it was abandoned in the second half for a more panicked – and traditional -approach based on slinging crosses into the box. Ireland have averaged 17 crosses a game under Stephen Kenny so far, but attempted 30 of them in the second half alone. One of them finally yielded a goal, but overall the quality of chances were lower, at the time Ireland had most of the ball.

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These numbers would suggest that Ireland’s initial plan was sound, but in the context of their desperate run of form, it was largely abandoned and everything reverted to type when another humiliating defeat was pointing at them. 

The players need a win as proof they can trust what they are being asked to do, if nothing else. 

Will it come tonight?

Only the most blithe of believers would expect it to. Serbia are level with Portugal at the top of the group on 10 points, hammered Luxembourg 4-1 and arrive with Aleksander Mitrovic in tow as the top scorer across any group in qualifying. Mitrovic is nursing a cheekbone injury, and while the expectation is he will be fit to play, Serbia have more-than-able deputies in Dusan Vlahovic and Luca Jovic. 

serbia-v-republic-of-ireland-fifa-world-cup-2022-european-qualifying-group-d-rajko-mitic-stadium PA Dusan Tadic against Ireland's Josh Cullen in the March meeting in Belgrade. PA

It will be instructive to see how Kenny sets his team up to deal with Dusan Tadic: the Ajax playmaker moved from the wing to a more central role at half-time in the defeat in Belgrade and wreaked havoc upon Ireland from there. 

Meanwhile, Seamus Coleman won’t be involved tonight as he misses out with a hamstring problem. 

Kenny and his squad need a win from somewhere and it is not beyond them to find it tonight, though form, quality and logic dictate it won’t be tonight.  

This looks like a conversation we’ll be having next month. Yet again. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Bazunu; Doherty; Omobamidele, Duffy, Egan; McClean; Cullen, Hourihane, Browne; Robinson, Idah

Serbia (Possible XI): Rajkovic; Lazovic; Milenkovic, Nastasic, Pavlovic; Kostic; Gudelj, Lukic; Milinkovic-Savic, Tadic; Mitrovic 

On TV: RTE Two; KO: 7.45pm

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