Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Zack Elbouzedi scored Ireland's winning goal as they beat Armenia last week.

'His running stats and his ability with high-speed running are always really exceptional'

Stephen Kenny has praised Zack Elbouzedi ahead of Ireland’s clash with Sweden at Tallaght Stadium tomorrow evening.

IT’S BEEN A good week for Zack Elbouzedi.

The 21-year-old Waterford player was the Ireland U21 team’s match-winner, as they secured a vital 1-0 win away to Armenia last week.

The attacking midfielder was the only League of Ireland representative in the starting XI for Thursday’s game, though UCD’s Liam Scales added to the contingent after he came off the bench.

After an impressive season with Waterford, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers have both been linked with the youngster, while clubs across the water may also have their eye on the player, particularly after his goal-scoring display in Yerevan.

Elbouzedi has already spent time playing in Britain. He was on the books at West Brom as a teenager and subsequently signed for Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 2017.

Injury problems contributed to his problems across the water, and he made the decision to come home to Ireland last year and join up with Alan Reynolds’ men.

But with Waterford potentially going part-time ahead of the 2020 season, it seems unlikely they will be able to keep hold of their star man.

In addition to the various challenges he has dealt with in relation to establishing himself at club level, Elbouzedi has also had his problems with injury in recent months, but none of these issues have deterred Stephen Kenny from selecting him when available for the U21s.

“He’s been a very consistent performer for us,” the Irish boss said. “He was doing well and obviously he [picked up an injury] against Bahrain in Toulon. That seemed to set him back. I think he got another injury in the interim and it set him back for a while.

He’s now getting back to where he was in that period, which is great. It’s exceptional for him to play equally well on the right or left and to be able to be adaptable for his roles. For example, against [Luca] Pellegrini [in the Italy U21 match], he pushed him on, so he had to be defending, making 70-yard runs. So his stats are always incredibly high, his running stats and his ability with high-speed running are always really exceptional.”

And given how well he has progressed in recent months, would Kenny like to see him move on in the off-season — either to a stronger Irish club or further afield?

“I think it’s a personal decision. It’s not one I’ve really discussed with him, because I’ve just been focusing on the matches. He has to choose whatever’s best for him. He was at West Brom. He’s come back and Waterford have been very good for him. He’s come back and done well and played every week. Sometimes when you play every week in an environment you’re comfortable in, you can excel again. So I’ve no idea what he’s really thinking about in terms of his next move, that’s purely down to himself.”

Elbouzedi will be hoping to make a similar impact against Sweden tomorrow night, while Ireland have been boosted by the availability of Lee O’Connor and Conor Masterson — the former returning from senior duty and the latter coming back from injury.

The Irish team will be without some of the players who have helped them perform so well in the campaign to date, with Troy Parrott, Darragh Leahy, Jonathan Afolabi, Michael Obafemi, Neil Farrugia, Dara O’Shea and Caoimhín Kelleher out for various reasons. Captain Jayson Molumby, meanwhile, is not certain to start, though Kenny is optimistic he will be “okay” for the game.

“[Lee] acquitted himself really well [on senior duty],” Kenny added. “I think it’s a great experience for Lee. Hopefully he can bring that good form into the game against Sweden, that’d be terrific. 

It’s timely with Dara O’Shea’s suspension [having Conor Materson back]. Conor has been very consistent for us, stepping into left-sided centre-back role. He’s a very clever passer with the ball, he disguises his passes very well. He’s certainly very fluid when he plays, because he comes out with it and he’s very comfortable on the ball. His aerial power’s been better, he’s come on as the years have progressed. Subsequently he got his goal against Sweden and in that game, he had another header well saved. So that was an area he needed to improve on and it looks like he’s getting better.”

Despite the Boys in Green winning 3-1 in the reverse fixture, Sweden are likely to represent formidable opposition for Kenny’s side. They beat Iceland — the only team in the group that have managed to defeat Ireland — 5-0 last month. The hours of travel that the hosts have had to do in the build-up to tomorrow night’s fixture is a further slight disadvantage going into the game.

“It’s not just even the fatigue, it’s the fact we won the game, we travelled a lot, it’s a good win and then we’ve got to switch on quickly to a big game, whereas Sweden have had a week to prepare. So we really need to make sure that when tomorrow comes, we’re really motivated, we’re really sharp all over the park and that our work ethic is to a high level, because Sweden are a good team and we’ll be fully tested.”

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