World Cup Qualifier - Group A: Republic of Ireland v Serbia, Tuesday September 7th, Aviva Stadium (kick-off 7.45pm - live on RTÉ Two and Sky Sports)
The battle of perception versus reality continues. Stephen Kenny and 83 cap veteran James McClean were the chosen spokespeople ahead of this vital World Cup qualifier. Vital for Serbia to go point for point with Portugal atop of Group A. Vital for Kenny's young Irish team to avoid another humiliating result at home.
Before the manager gave a passionate response to reports about his position being under threat, McClean stated that the media perversely enjoy when Ireland lose, even more so than their British counterparts. When challenged on this perception, the veteran winger seemed surprised to learn that Paul McGrath and Richard Dunne were Kenny's chief critics. In reality, McClean's was a clumsy, albeit heartfelt appeal for patience.
Kenny offered a more coherent revelation: qualifying for Qatar 2022 from a group containing Serbia and Portugal was always secondary to transforming the bones of his former Under-21 squad into a senior team that can reach the Euros in 2024.
“With Serbia and Portugal in the group, and the spine being ripped out of the team, and we haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 2002, did anyone think that we were favourites to qualify or we should qualify?”
Oddly, the spine he speaks of was Darren Randolph, Richard Keogh, Glenn Whelan and David McGoldrick.
The FAI have always been aware of this masterplan, Kenny confirmed, and while losing to Luxembourg and drawing with Azerbaijan makes the perception of progress harder to grasp, he firmly believes that the manner of defeats in Faro and Belgrade should be enough to keep the wolves from the door.
Kenny’s contract runs until July 2022, and tonight’s game will not alter that, even if Aleksandar Mitrovic adds to his brace in Saturday’s 4-1 defeat of Luxembourg in Belgrade, when the Fulham striker stretched his international tally to 43 in 65 appearances.
“I doubt that is the case to be honest,” Kenny responded to the idea that Serbia is a win or bust event.
On whether Ireland must win at least one of their four remaining qualifiers - Serbia at home, away to Azerbaijan next month, Portugal at home and Luxembourg away in November, he replied: “The answer to that is I don’t know but we endeavour to win every game.”
Only one from 15 endeavours has paid off so far.
“They play 3-4-2-1 with [Lazio’s Sergej] Milinkovic-Savic and [Ajax’s Dusan] Tadic behind Mitrovic but they could make changes with the other forwards that they have,” Kenny explained, happily switching to strategy. “It is a tactical challenge for us and we have to rise to that. In possession we have got to be comfortable and try and gain some control. We have to show a level of creativity to create chances against a good team.”
This indicates a return for attacking midfielder Jamie McGrath in place of Troy Parrott, although the teenager should have a role to play. Kenny also got his excuses in early by noting that injured trio Dara O'Shea, Nathan Collins and Séamus Coleman were preferred options on the right of three centre halves, even considering Norwich City teenager Andrew Omobamidele replaced O'Shea on the Algarve. And there was another reminder that this undercooked Irish squad will struggle to last a third high octane international in six days.
Which Ireland will show up is anyone's guess. The heroic 3-5-2 from Portugal or the turgid, 30 crosses in the second-half as they desperately chased a point against Azerbaijan with a team so miscalculated that Kenny abandoned the Aaron Connolly project at half-time.
Kenny needs to get his selection back on track or long term plans could pass to someone else. He makes a valid point about the “volatility” of reactions from the Portugal performance to Azerbaijan, believing that he remains suited to lead Ireland due to an encyclopaedic knowledge of the country’s modern players.
But how many lives is Jonathan Hill willing to afford him, considering that the FAI chief will come under increasing pressure to find a title sponsor as the search for a competitive win continues?
Not many beyond some ex-Irish players in media dispatches crave an ugly end to this promising, if stalled project. Heavy Irish legs and draining confidence suggest that Dragan Stojkovic’s powerful side will snatch all three points. Brave, well-coached resistance is the vital return every Irish fan needs to witness but perception is important enough for Kenny to dramatically improve his control of media messaging.
“There are a lot of people who say ‘that’s not your job to develop the game here, your job is just to win the next game’,” he said. “That kind of near-sightedness doesn’t create anything, you might beat teams that you should beat but you’ll never beat the teams you strive to beat.
“You’re trying to build something tangible over a period of time that can be successful. That’s how I see it.”
Kenny is about to find out how many from 25,000 spectators at the Aviva see it the same way. If that many turn up.
Republic of Ireland: Bazunu; Doherty, Omobamidele, Duffy, Egan, Manning; Cullen, Browne, McGrath; Robinson, Idah.
Serbia: Rajkovic; Pavlovi, Milenkovic, Nastasic; Lazovic, Lukic, Gudelj, Kostic; Tadic, Milinkovic; Mitrovic.