Ireland have plenty to build on after Belgrade, says Josh Cullen

Wednesday’s defeat to Serbia makes Saturday’s clash with Luxembourg a must-win

Republic of Ireland’s Josh Cullen jumps for the ball with Dusan Vlahovic of Serbia during Wednesday’s World Cup qualifying match in Belgrade. Photograph: Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Republic of Ireland’s Josh Cullen jumps for the ball with Dusan Vlahovic of Serbia during Wednesday’s World Cup qualifying match in Belgrade. Photograph: Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

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Josh Cullen accepts that Ireland’s defeat in Belgrade adds to the “must win” nature of Saturday’s game against Luxembourg in Dublin, but the midfielder believes that the squad have arrived home with plenty to build on despite conceding three and losing to the Serbs.

“To qualify for the World Cup we’ve got to be winning games,” says the 24-year-old Anderlecht midfielder, “so whether we’d won, drawn or lost, we’d have been going into Saturday aiming to win... nothing changes there. We’ll just look to have a couple of good days now building into the game on Saturday and go in with confidence with some of the positives from the [Serbia] game.”

There has been a lot of talk about those positives despite the fact that Wednesday’s was one of the most critically important games of the new campaign. The fact that the switch to a 3-5-2 paid off, though, despite the very limited preparation time and the quality of some of the Irish play in possession, certainly suggested significant progress, which is important because Ireland really need to avoid any slip-ups against Luxembourg this weekend.

“Yeah, I just think we restricted Serbia to only a few chances, although they were very clinical, to be fair to them,” says Cullen. “I think some of our build-up play from the back was good and I think we were a threat, and when we got into good areas with Browney [Alan Browne] in the 10 and Robbie [Brady] when he came on, there were chances there for us and at times we were good in possession.

Carried away

“We’re not getting carried away with the performance by any means; thinking we’re there. But things that we can look at and analyse and say, ‘Yeah, we did certain things well,’ and I’m sure there are plenty of things we can look at as well and know that there’s a lot to work on.”

As ever, the time to take the lessons on board and put things into practice is short, but Cullen is adamant that nobody is going to take Luxembourg for granted or fail to grasp just how important it is now to take three points from their visit to the Aviva.

“It makes it a very important game, we know that, and of course there’s no international team that you can ever underestimate. The approach and mindset of the team will be no different going into Saturday [than it was before Belgrade]. We need to make sure we put in a good performance and get the result we are all after.”

Serbia’s Uros Racic and Republic of Ireland’s Josh Cullen in action during their World Cup qualifying match at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade. Photograph: Novak Djurovic/PA Wire
Serbia’s Uros Racic and Republic of Ireland’s Josh Cullen in action during their World Cup qualifying match at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade. Photograph: Novak Djurovic/PA Wire

From a personal point of view, Cullen’s start on Wednesday night represented a major breakthrough for the 24-year-old, one that seemed to be imminent for quite a while without actually arriving. He had got a couple of caps in friendlies under Mick McCarthy and did quite well, but the disjointed nature of a club career seemed to hinder his attempt to really develop his game and establish his reputation.

There was a succession of loan spells from West Ham – a couple of them quite successful – to Bradford, Bolton and Charlton, but a steadily growing sense that there would be no breakthrough for him at the Premier League side. Everyone was aware of him but he lacked the solid platform from which to stake a greater claim at international level.

When Stephen Kenny succeeded McCarthy he spoke of James McCarthy as having the potential to direct operations for Ireland from in front of the central defence. The theory has still not been put properly to the test because of McCarthy’s ongoing fitness issues, but it seems hard to imagine that Kenny is quite so convinced now that it will ever happen.

Big winner

A handful of other players have featured there, with Jayson Molumby the big winner to date under the current manager, but, having come on twice in the autumn, Cullen had 19 league appearances, 15 of them starts, in the Belgian top flight with Anderlecht to point to as the manager weighed up his options in this first World Cup window. In a team that suffers from having too many bit-part players at club level, the benefit accrued in those games showed as Cullen worked relentlessly for the 90 minutes in Wednesday’s 3-2 defeat.

It was not terribly spectacular stuff, but there was a lot of ground covered, some important challenges made, a fair bit of tidying up and a decent contribution to the passing side of things. In the circumstances it was easy enough to see why his club coach, Vincent Kompany, suggests Cullen is popular with his teammates for his contribution to the collective despite not being obvious man-of-the-match winning material.

The midfielder acknowledges just how good the move to Belgium has been for him so far and, though Kenny has other options in that area, watching Molumby and Cullen together in that system looked as though it might just be the start of something.

Whatever about Saturday, being able to trace a productive midfield partnership between the pair back to Wednesday’s game would certainly be one positive worth taking from a night that was, in more immediate terms, clearly a disappointment.

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