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Preview: Depleted Ireland facing difficult task against Ukraine

Ireland round out a hectic four-game window in the Polish city of Łódź.

A view of the Irish training session at the LKS Stadium in Łódź.
A view of the Irish training session at the LKS Stadium in Łódź.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IRELAND RETURN TO Poland a decade on from the European Championships that dare not speak its name, albeit this time in altogether greyer circumstances. 

War has deracinated Ukraine’s football team and they have elected to play their home games in the city of Łódź, the scene of their U20 World Cup triumph in 2019. Oleksandr Petrakov was in charge of that team and he now leads the senior team at this moment of awful turmoil. He made the decision to make the LKS Stadium in Łódź the side’s temporary home, first playing here on Saturday, beating Armenia 3-0. 

“I feel this connection”, said Petrakov, “and it was incredible as a lot of people came to give support.” The stadium is brand-new, an 

Ukraine won in Dublin six days ago with a second-string side but Petrakov is expected to turn to his first-choice players tonight, though Benfica striker Roman Yaremchuk is absent with a shin injury.  Petrakov blamed the “cold rain in Wales” for the illness that has run through his squad since the World Cup play-off defeat, though now only midfielder Oleksandr Zubkov is a doubt, with Ruslan Malinovskyi and Andriy Yarmolenko recovered. There may be further rotation in goal, with Dmytro Riznyk, one of the U20 World Cup winners, set for a competitive debut. 

Circumstances have left Stephen Kenny has little room for rotation by comparison.

Nathan Collins is the only member of the first-choice back five available for this game, with Shane Duffy and John Egan missing along with Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty. Dara O’Shea will start and Darragh Lenihan looks likely to be drafted in for what will be his competitive debut and first international appearance since the truly bleak goalless draw against Northern Ireland in 2018. 

Michael Obafemi’s star turn against Scotland will sadly be his final act of this window, as he has been ruled out of tonight’s game with a groin injury. Kenny is more optimistic that Chiedozie Ogbene will recover from the knock that took him out of the Scotland game. The wear and tear of the previous three games will also dictate team selection. Josh Cullen is unlikely to be handed a fourth start in a row, and Jason Knight may also be in need of a break. 

If Jayson Molumby is retained, Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane may replace Cullen and Knight to retain the midfield trio that worked effectively against Scotland. Ukraine usually switch between a back four and back three – they adopted the latter against Ireland last week – and Kenny says his side strive to be similarly adaptable, between their 3-4-3 and 3-5-2. 

“We have two systems that we are trying to improve all the time”, said Kenny. We are capable of playing either at any time. We did alter it at the weekend and it was successful.” 

This is the most difficult of Ireland’s tasks in the group, but Saturday’s win against Scotland has teed up an unlikely salvage job on a group Kenny spoke giddily of winning last year. Goal difference has burnished the table’s look, putting Ireland second but level on points with Scotland and bottom-placed Armenia, having played a game more than the Scots. 

“Off the back of the Scotland game, the mood in the camp has been lifted massively”, said James McClean, Ireland’s likely captain tonight in the absence of Coleman, Duffy, and Egan.

“The two games before that were not the results that we wanted. We went into this camp in confident mood fancying our chances in the two games. We were disappointed with the results but Scotland has been a massive lift. We are looking forward to this game and if we win we are on six points and right back up there in terms of winning the group.”

james-mcclean James McClean speaks to the press. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

That confidence, it seems, was parlayed into a kind of complacency.

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“These little setbacks can sometimes be a good thing”, said McClean. “It’s nice when you’re going well and you’re getting pats on the back and you’re being told you’re brilliant and this and that. But sometimes you need that little reality check and over the last two games we probably came in expecting to win both games and we haven’t and it’s probably given lads a little bit of a reality check. We have to earn every win and show up and perform.” 

Ireland have too often failed to follow-up their statement wins and performances under Kenny so far: the sparks in defeat away to Serbia were followed by the lifeless loss to Luxembourg and brave defeat in Faro came before a mediocre draw at home to Azerbaijan.

Bucking that trend in Ireland’s latest task, but given their depleted squad and the opposition’s quality, it looks a mighty ask. 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI): Caoimhín Kelleher; Darragh Lenihan, Nathan Collins, Dara O’Shea; Alan Browne; Conor Hourihane, Jayson Molumby, Jeff Hendrick; James McClean; Troy Parrott, Chiedozie Ogbene 

Ukraine (Possible XI): Dmytro Riznyk; Oleksandr Karavaev, Mykola Matvienko, Illia Zabarnyi, Vitaliy Mykolenko; Mykola Shaparenko, Serhiy Sydorchuk, Oleksandr Zinchenko; Andriy Yarmolenko, Artem Dovbyk, Viktor Tsygankov.

On TV: RTE Two; KO: 7.45pm 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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