Ireland will stick to their guns as Belgium come to town

Stephen Kenny has no intentions of changing his philosophy with results improving

International friendly: Republic of Ireland v Belgium, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 5pm – Live on Sky Sports Premier League

This being more centenary celebration than international friendly - actually, it's the FAI's 101st birthday but who's counting - Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny and skipper Séamus Coleman were asked to name the best Irish players of all time.

Kenny’s reply forced us to search hard for the trace of a smile.

"In my early years obviously Liam Brady was outstanding, he was the most creative influence probably, and he was the player I thought was brilliant. After that, the Ronnie Whelans and Ray Houghtons were terrific and really creative."

Perhaps Kenny believes that the secret to coping with criticism is to lavish praise on the person delivering it. Or he truly loved watching Brady saunter from Highbury to Serie A before finishing his playing days blowing bubbles at Upton Park.

Either way, having rammed home the creative element of bygone Irish XIs, he guaranteed the same from his Ireland team, especially with the Aviva swelling to capacity against a Belgium side slowly shifting gears ahead of the winter World Cup in Qatar.

For those who missed the headline news - Belgium manager Roberto Martínez has put the golden generation on ice, so forget about a memorable night similar to when Zidane or Messi graced Lansdowne Road as Kevin De Bruyne has not made the journey.

“They’ve got huge strength in depth,” countered Kenny to the absence of all 50-cap Belgium veterans. “I know I spoke about [Romelu] Lukaku not being in the team but they’ve got [Divock] Origi, [Michy] Batshuayi and [Christian] Benteke as options for one position, and other players we’re well aware of as well. It’s not a young Belgian team, it’s a very experienced team, with physically big players like [Hans] Vanacken and [Leander] Dendoncker.

“Obviously [Youri] Tielemans is probably one of the most sought-after midfielders in Europe at the moment. So they’ve a formidable team.

“We’re not playing the game to contain and nick something on the break, or try and get a set-piece, or play a low block.

“I’m just not going to do that. We’ve got good enough players to go and take the game to Belgium. Will they force you on the back foot at times? Inevitably that can be the case, because they’ve got a lot of quality but it’s certainly our ambition to do well.”

The bullish attitude was well earned during a frenetic 2021 when defeat to Luxembourg in Dublin was soundly addressed by a 3-0 drubbing of the same team in the last match of a failed, yet hugely progressive World Cup qualification campaign that had Brady chippy throughout.

Kenny has undeniably created a settled team as Ireland aim to stretch their undefeated streak to seven matches, dating back to Cristiano Ronaldo’s header in Faro.

That is until injury and illness intervene. At least Gavin Bazunu’s replacement is 23-year-old Liverpool reserve Caoimhín Kelleher as the great debate begins around Bazunu or Kelleher, both equally gifted, modern goalkeepers.

Considering the young bodies of Norwich City's Adam Idah (knee) and Andrew Omobamidele (back) are packed in for the season, other pretenders have an opportunity. Will Keane's 20 goals for Wigan Athletic, albeit in League One, could land the 29-year-old the lone striker role even if Kenny describes him as a different forward to Idah.

“Obviously Adam Idah runs the channels, he’s a direct runner and someone who plays on the last line a lot. He’s a very quick athlete. Will is not that. He’s very good with his back to goal, he drops into pockets, he’s very intelligent and has great awareness. He sees passes and scores headed goals.”

That might be enough to keep Troy Parrott in reserve as Chiedozie Ogbene and Callum Robinson are currently undroppable.

Coleman, by the way, began the best Irish player debate with Damien Duff before finishing on Roy Keane's "unbelievable" tearing down of the Dutch in 2001. The Everton captain should profit from Omobamidele's injury to start on the right of three centre halves, especially with wing backs Matt Doherty and James McClean in the form of their lives.

That Belgium coach Anthony Barry recently took leave of the Irish camp hardly creates any extra spice but Tielemans seems happy with the bigger football nation stealing from the smaller football nation.

“His intensity in training is a very English mentality,” said the Belgium captain before quickly adding, “Or Irish!”

“He’s known for being a set-piece master so we’ve worked a bit on that and hopefully you can see the results tomorrow.”

Republic of Ireland (possible): Kelleher; Coleman, Duffy, Egan; Doherty, Hendrick, Cullen, McClean; Ogbene, Robinson; Keane

Belgium (possible): Mignolet; Boyata, Denayer, Theate; Saelemaekers, Vanaken, Tielemans, Thorgan Hazard; Trossard, De Ketelaere; Batshuaiyi

Referee: Nicholas Walsh (Scotland)

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