Ireland go into Qatar friendly with urgent need to find their mojo
Kenny needs a miracle for World Cup qualification, but right now a win will do
Robbie Brady at Republic of Ireland Squad Training in Debrecen, Hungary on Monday. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Qatar v Republic of Ireland, Nagyerdei Stadion, Debrecen, Hungary, 7.45pm Irish time - Live RTÉ2 and Sky Sports Football
There was the odd minor provocation during Stephen Kenny’s latest meeting with the press on Monday, but at least nobody asked whether the Ireland team might consider boycotting the World Cup should they get there.
The day before a qualifier against Turkey last week, Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum got dragged into a tetchy exchange with a reporter over possible player action in relation to racism and the tournament, aspects of which seemed a little premature the next night when the Netherlands lost 4-2.
Ireland’s qualification prospects would be revived somewhat in the event the Serbs or Portuguese slip up in games away to the group’s lower seeds on Tuesday but, as things stand, the Irish players would probably do well to seize the moment in Debrecen if they intend to do anything to highlight the ongoing abuses suffered by migrant workers in Qatar.
Kenny said he would be fine with it if they do, acknowledging that the issue is important and does need to be highlighted, but the 49-year-old said that there had been no suggestion to him that the squad might seek to send a message of support to those affected.
The manager, of course, might be forgiven for having the need for a demonstration of a different type on his mind. A friendly that looked to be of little enough significance has taken a good deal more in the wake of Saturday’s home defeat by Luxembourg, easily the most damaging result of his tenure to date.
The FAI remains supportive but, with a portion of the supporters unhappy and a few former players now taking pretty big potshots in the media, Kenny could badly do with an improved performance, goals and a win – not necessarily in that order of importance.
As he revealed on Monday that he is to get nine days in Spain with the squad in June for a training camp that will include friendlies against Andorra and Hungary, he acknowledged how much of a blow the result at the weekend had been and accepted the criticism that has flowed since as inevitable. He also, however, restated his determination to get through the current difficulties and deliver a side capable of exciting and inspiring the Irish people. It was clearly heartfelt stuff from a man who must be under a fair bit of pressure at the moment, and he showed clear signs of emotion at one point as he spoke.
The only fear is that what he has in mind is a team that plays the way it did against Slovakia and Serbia because, good as those displays were at times, Kenny gives every impression of viewing them in an excessively positive light – more excessive, it seems, every time they are mentioned.
“I want to build a team that really exhilarates Irish football people,” he said at the team’s Hungarian base. “That’s it, nothing more than that. We want to be much better. We’ve a huge amount of talent coming through and we’ve a lot of very good professionals, experienced professionals. We will integrate the two and make ourselves better.
“We hit a low the other day getting beaten by Luxembourg. We’ve got to take that on the chin. Some of our play has been nothing short of brilliant, against Slovakia and Serbia, and we’ll continue to build on that and get better again. And that’s the way I feel it now.”
He described the Serbia game “as one of the best displays by an Irish team away from home in recent years”, an observation that would provide the basis for an interesting round table with a couple of his fairly recent predecessors if any enterprising production company out there wants to get on the case.
He readily acknowledged the shortcomings in the performance against Luxembourg, though, admitting that the side had created nothing like the number of chances that they should have, given the possession they had in a game they needed – and were expected – to win.
“We wanted to go to Spain for nine days in June to work on the whole collective way we want to play and integrate all the new players we have brought in,” he said. “We wanted to ramp that up with friendlies against Andorra and Hungary that would take us into September, but the big letdown has been losing to Luxembourg.”
Now, he finds himself needing a result to lift the mood before the summer and September, but heads into a game against a Qatar team that has had the luxury of sitting tight in Debrecen as it beat both Luxembourg and Azerbaijan over the past six days.
Kenny will be without Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens for the game, with the two wing-backs having returned to their clubs after picking up injuries at the weekend, and the manager declined to say whether that might prompt a change of system. Some different faces are inevitable, though, and, while the manager would not offer any sense of the scale of the overhaul, he may well feel the need to involve some of the senior players who might regard his decision to omit them from the starting line-ups for the two qualifiers as not having been entirely justified by subsequent events.
Qatar, for whom this is just the latest phase of an extravagant preparation for the World Cup they will host next year, will make changes too to the side that beat Azerbaijan 2-1 on Saturday thanks to two goals from their captain, Hassan Al-Haydos.
Their Spanish coach, Félix Sánchez Bas, has overseen a rankings rise of about 50 places over the past couple of years, most of it down the team’s highly impressive performance at the Asian Cup, where Sudanese born striker Almoez Ali, one of several naturalised players in the squad, scored nine of 19 tournament goals for a team that conceded just one, to Japan in the final.
Where, precisely, are Oman when you need them?
QATAR (possible line-up): Al Sheeb (Al-Sadd); Pedro Miguel (Al-Sadd), Al Rawi (Al-Duhail), Khoukhi (Al-Sadd), A Hassan (Al-Sadd); Alaaeldin (Al-Gharafa), Boudiaf (Al-Duhail), Hatem (Al-Rayyan), Waad (Al-Sadd); Al-Haydos (Al-Sadd), Ali (Al-Duhail).
IRELAND (possible line-up): Bazunu (Rochdale); Coleman (Everton), Duffy (Celtic), O’Shea (West Brom), Manning (Swansea City); Hendrick (Newcastle United), Cullen (Anderlecht), Knight (Derby County); Brady (Burnley), Long (Bournemouth), Horgan (Wycombe).
Referee: Balázs Berke (Hungary).