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5 talking points as Stephen Kenny names his squad for crucial World Cup qualifiers

Ireland need to make a fast start to the campaign, which begins against Serbia next week.

Stephen Kenny.
Stephen Kenny.
Image: PA

STEPHEN KENNY, STILL hunted by conspiring fates, today names his squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Serbia and Luxembourg, along with the subsequent serving of some Pandemic Football Decadence: a friendly game. With Qatar. In Hungary. 

(Qatar have succeeded where Ireland once humiliatingly failed, in persuading Fifa to include them in this group as an additional team. They are quite literally making up the numbers, though, and will play a friendly game against the Group A side who would otherwise face a fallow matchday.)

The serious business is the pair of qualifiers. Portugal are top seeds and look nailed on to top the group, and so Ireland will likely be scrapping for second place and the play-offs. Serbia are the second seeds with Ireland third, meaning the tone of the campaign may well be set from the opening game in Belgrade next Wednesday. Regardless of how that goes, the home tie with Luxembourg on Saturday week will be must-win in any context. 

Injuries, however, have already hit: Darren Randolph, James McCarthy, Jack Byrne, and John Egan are definitely out, with Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly likely to miss out too. If the latter pair do miss out, Kenny will be missing five of his first-choice team. 

Kenny has already named his extended provisional squad but hasn’t divulged it publicly, so today’s list will be his final 23-man squad for the triple-header. Here are a few talking points ahead of this afternoon’s announcement. 

What to do at goalkeeper? 

Darren Randolph is one of only two players to have played every minute under Kenny so far – Shane Duffy is the other – but he is out of these games through injury. Caoimhin Kelleher is next in line to start, but this may hit a snag: he is recovering from an abdominal injury and he hasn’t been named in a Liverpool squad in just over a month. Kelleher didn’t make the bench for Monday’s win over Wolves, and Kenny hoped he would get some training in at the start of this week to justify his inclusion in his international squad. 

Mark Travers has been in all of Kenny’s senior squads, though he lost out on a run of games when Bournemouth recalled him from a loan spell at Swindon last month, and he hasn’t played in five weeks. Teenage goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, by contrast, has played every week – and been almost farcically overworked – at Rochdale this season, and he is likely to earn a senior call-up later today. Depending on Kelleher’s fitness, he may even find himself making his debut in Belgrade.

celtic-v-st-mirren-scottish-premiership-celtic-park Shane Duffy has endured a torrid time at Celtic. Source: PA

The many cases for the defence

Given his absence, it was disconcerting to hear Kenny say during a presentation to supporters last week that John Egan is “critical to how we play.” Egan’s comfort on the ball and his range of passing allows Ireland play higher up the pitch, and takes some of the playmaking pressures off the Irish midfield. 

The manager needs to find alternatives. West Brom’s Dara O’Shea proved himself to be one option last year, and, during a coaching webinar the day after he left the Irish set-up, Damien Duff sang O’Shea’s praises for adapting to what was asked of him. 

Kenny also faces a major call with regard to Shane Duffy. His captain in the absence of Seamus Coleman and thus far his only goalscorer, Duffy’s form for Celtic has collapsed to the point he is no longer in the team. Ciaran Clark, by contrast, has been a regular fixture in the Newcastle team and Kenny has been to see him thrice since Christmas. 

Enda Stevens’ position at left-back is not in doubt – Kenny must pray for his fitness with Ryan Manning, Greg Cunningham and an out-of-position Matt Doherty inferior alternatives – while the infernal Doherty/Coleman conundrum will again lead the questioning at today’s press conference. 

Coleman looks more reliable defensively and has had a better season thus far – plus, his leadership experience might make it easier to drop Duffy, if Kenny is that way inclined – but that doesn’t rule Doherty out of the equation entirely.

Kenny says he doesn’t believe both can play in a 4-3-3 (as Mick McCarthy said he discovered on the Night of the Executive Vice-President in Gibraltar two years ago) but he may yet squeeze them both into a 4-2-3-1, the formation Ireland have been most closely following since the Slovakia play-off defeat. 

Midfield options

The silver lining of the spate of absentees in the autumn? Kenny has seen many more players than he envisaged. Ireland’s midfield has depth, if not stratification: Kenny will pick a holding pair from Jason Knight, Jayson Molumby, Conor Hourihane, Josh Cullen, Jeff Hendrick, and with Harry Arter injured, potentially Aaron McEneff. 

The form pair are probably Cullen – a regular fixture in Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht – and Hourihane, who dropped down to the Championship in January and has already scored five goals and created another for Swansea. 

Ahead of them, Graham Burke might come into the picture with Jack Byrne injured, but Alan Browne and Robbie Brady are certainties, and you would imagine at least one of them will start in Serbia. 

republic-of-ireland-v-bulgaria-uefa-nations-league-group-b4-aviva-stadium Jason Knight reacts to a missed chance in the Nations League draw with Bulgaria. Source: PA

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How are we going to score? 

And so to the problem position, as Kenny needs to end an astonishing run of more than seven games – currently at 660 minutes – without a goal. To that end, the loss of Idah and Connolly are a blow, particularly given the latter’s pace. 

Let’s start with some good news. James McClean is expected to be fit for inclusion, and Troy Parrott will make the cut having happily scored his first senior goal in Ipswich’s win last weekend. Callum O’Dowda, meanwhile, last weekend returned from almost three months out, and even added a goal for good measure.

Daryl Horgan, meanwhile, has at least been an ever present for Wycombe at the bottom of the Championship…though hasn’t scored since September. 

Sean Maguire has started just once for Preston since 16 January, Callum Robinson hasn’t played for West Brom since 2 February, and James Collins has lost his regular starting spot at Luton. 

Thus Shane Long is probably the form striker: he has dropped into the Championship with Bournemouth and scored twice in eight games. Drop a further division below, and Ronan Curtis has netted the same number for Portsmouth since the turn of the year. 

What has been learned from last year? 

There may be fewer history-inflected motivational videos…though it might be tough to find material for Luxembourg and Qatar anyway. 

In all seriousness, that infamous (and overblown) video against England precipitated the departures of Damien Duff and Alan Kelly – one had no problem with the video, the other did – and they have been replaced on staff by Chelsea coach Anthony Barry and ex-Irish international Dean Kiely. 

The squad must hope they have endured enough already to avoid another brush with Covid: Kenny lost 12 players to either positive tests or close contacts over six games in October and November.

To that end, they are doing their best to cut down on flights, and the squad won’t be in Dublin at all ahead of the Serbia game. Instead they are gathering in Manchester on Sunday, and will train at Manchester City’s training ground on Monday ahead of the flight to Belgrade, from where they will fly back to Dublin to prepare for Saturday’s meeting with Luxembourg. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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