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Portugal performance shows plenty of reasons to keep faith with the Kenny project

A young Irish side came agonisingly close to upsetting Fernando Santos’ men.

Ireland's Seamus Coleman and Gavin Bazunu dejected after the game.
Ireland's Seamus Coleman and Gavin Bazunu dejected after the game.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated Sep 2nd 2021, 3:02 PM

IN THE END, the bare facts will show that Ireland suffered their eighth defeat of the Stephen Kenny era against Portugal last night.

As it stands, they have won just one (the Andorra friendly last June) of their 14 fixtures since the Dubliner took charge.

If a neutral observer was to assess this form, out of context, he or she might well come to the conclusion that they constitute the type of results to put a manager’s job under serious threat.

And indeed with his contract set to elapse at the end of this World Cup campaign, it has been suggested that the current international window could be crucial in determining the Ireland coach’s future. 

But while the result alone may suggest another in a series of hard-luck sagas for Ireland under Kenny, anyone who watched the game will know there is far more to this story.

The Irish boss afterwards said his team were minutes away from “probably the greatest result in Ireland’s qualification history away from home,” and when you consider how rarely the Boys in Green beat the top teams on the road, coupled with the ostensible difference in ability between the two sides in question, it is by no means an outlandish claim.

Consider the clubs represented in the respective starting XIs.

Portugal: Roma, Man City, Man City, Porto, Borussia Dortmund, Sporting CP, Man United, Man City, Benfica, Man United, Liverpool.

Ireland: Portsmouth, Everton, Brighton, Sheffield United, West Brom, Tottenham, Anderlecht, Newcastle, St Mirren, Brighton, Norwich.

There is also the added caveat that four members of that Irish lineup — Matt Doherty, Jeff Hendrick, Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah — have not started a single league game for their clubs this season, and that’s also the case with three of the four subs Kenny introduced (Andrew Omobamidele, James McClean and Jayson Molumby).

Cristiano Ronaldo, whose spectacular double broke Irish hearts and the international goalscoring record, is reportedly earning a basic salary of €560,000-a-week at Man United, a pay packet so excessive you suspect that Ireland’s starting XI would struggle to match it in combined wages.

So it was a genuine David-v-Goliath sporting contest and yet until the 89th minute, the visitors were on course to pull off a remarkable upset.

In addition, several key moments could, on another day, have gone in Ireland’s favour. Ronaldo thumping Dara O’Shea after the penalty was awarded — which the Irish defender admittedly made the most of — was not even deemed worthy of a VAR check. In the build-up to the equaliser, after Portugal missed a good chance, the referee controversially decided to bring it back for a free-kick that eventually led to the goal. Ireland will also feel the officials were generous to the hosts in allowing them to play on well beyond the five minutes of injury time allotted before they scored the winner. Aaron Connolly also missed a couple of decent chances and was unlucky not to be awarded a penalty on two occasions.

It was very much a game of contrasting halves. In the first period, Ireland more than matched Portugal for long periods to the extent that when John Egan’s superb header put them ahead just before the break, it did not feel undeserved.

Ireland intermittently played the type of eye-catching football Kenny favours — a glorious through ball from Josh Cullen to set up an onrushing Connolly was among the highlights. On the other hand, their bravery on the ball sometimes proved detrimental, most notably when Gavin Bazunu underhit a pass towards Jeff Hendrick, allowing Bruno Fernandes to dart towards the loose ball in the area and win a debatable penalty.

In contrast with the opening 45, a more pragmatic Ireland emerged in the second half. Counter-attacks were less frequent, possession was squandered more readily, territory plus chances were given up too easily and the defending became increasingly desperate — at times, it felt like a return to the unappealing but often effective football that characterised so much of the Martin O’Neill era. 

Moreover, with 72% possession and 29 shots compared with Ireland’s six, Portugal will feel they were worthy winners, even if the manner of their victory was ultimately somewhat fortuitous.

The match also highlighted that the perception in some quarters of Kenny as a footballing romantic, who dogmatically prioritises aesthetics over results, is exaggerated at best. The coach could not have had the record he achieved with Dundalk and others without the ability to win ugly on occasion.

Yet there was also a boldness to many of Kenny’s decisions. Others in his position might have been unwilling to hand competitive debuts to Omobamidele and Jamie McGrath for such a vital qualifier.

Indeed, the Irish team in general lacked experience at international level. Four players in the starting XI were 22 or under, while the early introduction of 19-year-old Omobamidele brought the average age down even further. By contrast, only two Portugal players that began the game were under the age of 26 (24-year-olds Diogo Jota and Ruben Dias).

Of the more unfamiliar names that took to the field, Cullen, Bazunu, Omobamidele, McGrath and Idah all emerged with their reputations enhanced, in the process giving a glimpse of a brighter future for Irish football. Similarly, the more experienced likes of Shane Duffy, Doherty and Egan also acquitted themselves admirably.

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And despite all these apparent advantages for the hosts, Ireland’s bright youngsters gave their rivals an almighty scare.

Had they held out for the remaining one minute plus stoppage time, it would leave the Boys in Green trailing the Portuguese by just four points and given their qualification hopes a serious shot in the arm.

Instead, they are now 10 points behind the group leaders. First place, quite frankly, looks impossible to attain. Ireland can pick up a maximum of 15 points from their remaining games. Even if they do that, Portugal only need to win two of their last four fixtures to avoid being overtaken by Kenny’s men. Even a second-place finish, which would see Ireland advance to the play-offs, appears highly unlikely at present.

But securing one of the 13 qualifying spots designated for European teams at the 2022 World Cup was always going to be a tall order. You could put Pep Guardiola in charge of the Irish team and he would struggle to fulfil that goal.

Consequently, with qualification seemingly no longer a realistic ambition, the key question FAI officials must ask themselves before making a definitive call on the contract situation is whether genuine progress has been made under Kenny and if the squad is in a better place compared to when he took over.

Roy Barrett has already hinted that World Cup qualification is not necessarily the barometer by which the 49-year-old coach should be measured, and while last night’s near miss at Estádio Algarve won’t silence his detractors, neither will it deter those who have backed the Ireland manager up to this point.

The signs from last night were positive, but Kenny has already overseen two acclaimed-though-unsuccessful away performances in competitive matches — versus Slovakia and Serbia — and they were then undermined by the inept displays that followed.

In other words, the pressure is now on the Irish team to avoid another Luxembourg-esque disaster.

On Saturday at home to Azerbaijan — the only other team in the group yet to pick up a single point — Ireland must build on the promise they showed in Faro and secure a much-needed victory. Otherwise serious questions will again be asked about Kenny’s suitability for the job and the plethora of gifted youngsters he has blooded could suffer irrevocably.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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