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Ireland boss Stephen Kenny (left) and Kevin De Bruyne (right).
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Irish team working on 'De Bruyne crossing' as they prepare to face Hungary
The Boys in Green face their last friendly of the season in Budapest this evening.

IT’S BEEN A long, hard season for Ireland’s players, and after tonight’s clash against Hungary (kick-off: 7pm, live on RTÉ Two and Sky Sports Football) in the Ferenc Szusza Stadium, it will finally come to an end.

Looking back over the past few months, Stephen Kenny and co will find it difficult to take a great deal of satisfaction, certainly from a results perspective. An unfortunate penalty-kick loss against Slovakia means they won’t be competing at the Euros, while of more worry will be the awful start to their World Cup qualifying campaign that has seen them lose their opening two qualifiers against Serbia and Luxembourg.

Last week, they may have been playing against the 158th-ranked team in the world in Andorra, but regardless of the opponents, a first victory, after an 11-match winless run under Kenny, was always going to provide a morale boost.

A victory away to a side who have qualified for the Euros would enhance the feel-good factor and provide a platform to build on ahead of three crucial World Cup qualifiers, against Portugal, Azerbaijan and Serbia, in September.

Asked in the pre-match press conference about his assessment of the past year, Kenny said: “I’m very clear in the team I want to create, that I want to represent Ireland. We’ve had some difficult moments, for a lot of reasons, but there have been some excellent performances in there as well. Players can take confidence from scoring four goals the other night.

“For example, the work on the training ground, Troy Parrott’s second, his header. He probably scored that goal eight times in training before he scored it in the match. We’ve been working on the whole concept, the De Bruyne cross for example. The percentage of goals scored from traditional wide areas, crosses and headed finishes now is much less than say James McClean and Ronan Curtis working to set the cross up for Conor Hourihane from that narrow angle inside the box. It’s a really exceptionally dangerous cross, and it’s synonymous with De Bruyne crossing.  

“Troy has not been noted for his headed finishes. He scored a lot of headed goals [in training] coming late. It was great to see it work in the match and see his movement off James Collins.  

“And likewise, Jason Knight’s movement at the back post to score from Daryl Horgan’s cross, which is an in-swinging cross from that position. So, it’s good to see those things come to fruition.”

Kenny added: “Listen, we’re not getting carried away. We got a victory against Andorra in a match that we were expected to win, no doubt about that.

“The point is that it can give the players some confidence going to Hungary. It’s a different test. They’ve had a brilliant run topping their group in the Nations League, and winning their play-off to get to the Euros.

“In a way, it’s a bit of a carnival for them — a full house, which is amazing. We want to make sure we perform well in this game, that’s important for us.”

Kenny began his Ireland reign with four at the back but opted to start with a three-man defence for both the World Cup qualifiers last March. In Andorra on Thursday, he reverted to a two centre-back system but says he is not necessarily going to stick to one formation in future.

Hungary generally play a 3-5-2 style, but Kenny did not rule out going with four at the back again and doesn’t believe Ireland should “rigidly copy any team”.

He continued: “We definitely have to have the flexibility to be able to change. And that’s one of the things we’ve focused on here that players understand their roles and responsibilities when we change, why we change, how we change, what our roles are – our defenders, our midfield players, our attacking players and all the different roles within the systems. And I definitely do feel we have the capacity to change with the sort of emerging defenders that we have.

“Obviously, when Seamus Coleman isn’t fit, it gives Matt Doherty the chance to play in that position [at right wing-back]. The young defenders emerging, Dara O’Shea, Nathan Collins and Andrew Omobamidele, [the different system] just gives them an opportunity, they are really good on the ball. Shane Duffy has also played that way and played that system at club level.

“So it does give us selection [options], particularly our wingers — for instance, Callum O’Dowda, who has had a hamstring operation, and Callum Robinson and Aaron Connolly who can play wide; when they’re not here and Robbie Brady, who’s not here and has been injured.

“As happened in March, when your wingers are not available, you have to have the capacity to change. We don’t have an armoury of strength in depth where we can stick to one system, so that’s why we have to have that flexibility.”

gavin-bazunu Sergio Ruiz / INPHO Gavin Bazunu has impressed in his three appearances at senior level for Ireland. Sergio Ruiz / INPHO / INPHO

Kenny dropped a few hints concerning his starting XI, suggesting Man City teenager Gavin Bazunu could feature again to give him the experience of playing in front of a sizeable, packed crowd, something he has not yet been regularly accustomed to in his young career.

With Caoimhin Kelleher, Mark Travers and Darren Randolph (currently unavailable through injury) also vying for the number one spot in goals, Bazunu is by no means guaranteed to start come September, but the former Shamrock Rovers player has certainly enhanced his reputation after a series of eye-catching performances of late for his country.

“We’ve obviously got three ‘keepers in the camp. They are all talented, obviously, and we want them to get as much game-time as they can at their clubs. That’s very important. That hasn’t always been possible, because they’ve been number two at their clubs and it’s not easy. We feel the three of them are really talented, and a lot can happen between now and September, so I wouldn’t like to put a label on it at this stage [by identifying someone as first-choice].”

Another youngster to impress in this window has been Tottenham starlet Troy Parrott. There has been some debate over where the 19-year-old’s best position could lie — in recent times, he has played as an out-and-out striker, as well as in the 10 and wide attacking roles on occasion.

“He has had that sort of career, even in the Irish underage teams, where he has been used in a lot of positions,” Kenny said. “And he has tactical flexibility, at club level, at Millwall they played 3-4-3 and he played on the left a lot. At Ipswich, he wasn’t used as a number nine, but that is what Tottenham see him as.

“He definitely has the capacity to play higher and play in that attacking number 10 position. He is good at linking the play as well, and he has the capacity to arrive late and score goals, so he definitely can play that. 

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“Can we play against Hungary with two wingers and two players like that? You leave yourself quite open away from home, playing like that, so can we adapt in other areas to allow him to do that? That is the question. 

“We have to tactically modify the possibilities before we can get him to do that. But yeah, we do feel he is a threat, as are some of the other young players, Adam Idah coming through and Jason Knight getting his first goal, that goal gave Jason a lot of confidence.”

As for another Tottenham player, Matt Doherty, Kenny played down concerns surrounding the star’s form with Ireland, after an indifferent season at club level.

“He was just unfortunate to get Covid in [a previous international] camp because it really knocked him for six — the virus negatively affected him and it took him a month to get back to where he was and he lost his club place because of it. That was rather unfortunate, but overall, he’s performed well for Ireland.”

And to what extent will the club form of Doherty and others, compared with their international displays, impact Kenny’s thinking when it comes to selecting players for the games in September?

“It is all relevant. They are all factors. We want the players to perform well for Ireland and show they can play with the individual tasks that they have been given. 

“I think players will play a lot of games before September, as most clubs give equal minutes to their players in pre-season.

“The season is only a week old coming into September so, really, this is five games in a row. That’s how I compartmentalise it; two games now, the players have a couple of weeks off and they are back in training.

“They will all probably get equal minutes at their clubs and someone playing regularly for their club is more of a factor in October, November. So this camp is important in that regard.”

Possible Ireland starting XI to face Hungary: Gavin Bazunu; Matt Doherty, Dara O’Shea, John Egan (captain), Ryan Manning; Josh Cullen, Harry Arter; Jason Knight, Troy Parrott, Daryl Horgan; Adam Idah.

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