Kenny and Ireland need morale-boosting first victory

Failure to beat Luxembourg would deal body blow to Republic’s qualification hopes

The fun and games were getting into full swing at Stephen Kenny’s pre-match press conference on Friday with attempts being made to corral the manager into accepting that Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg in Dublin is a “must-win game”.

Unsurprisingly, the 49 year-old didn’t seem all that keen on handing a hostage to fortune roughly the size of the visitors’ homeland to his critics on the eve of the match although the first couple of attempts to brush the issue off didn’t quite come off for him.

“You seem reluctant to commit to it being a must-win,” came the follow up. “If we don’t win, are you saying we can still finish in the top two?”

“Well, it depends on your grasp of mathematics,” responded Kenny after having taken a moment to mull it over, “but anything is possible. It’s important that we win the game. We want to win the game. What does ‘must-win’ mean? We want to do well and we’re going to be very determined to try and win the game. That is our objective.”

Kenny could point to the history here and the fact that the first time Ireland qualified for a World Cup, Jack Charlton and his team kicked the campaign off with two draws and a defeat. It is amazing what you can get away with, of course, when you can beat everyone at home. Lansdowne Road feeling like a fortress again however is still some way off.

In reality, whatever the semantics of the situation, Saturday is a pretty big game for the Dubliner.

In terms of possible qualification, Ireland have had their Macedonias but, crucially, they have not ended up at a major championship after any campaign in which they had one.

Clearly Kenny will hope that this group is capable of some really big results but they have yet to actually demonstrate it and requiring an extra one because Luxembourg couldn’t be beaten at home would not be a great vista to contemplate.

Beating the minnows has, in any case, been absolutely critical to the side’s last two successful campaigns, in 2012 and ’16.

Under Trapattoni, Ireland managed just one point against Russia over two games but the 18 earned from the meetings with the group's lowest three seeds saved them the trouble of having to beat Slovakia either home or away. Instead, they were able to sit sat back and allow Armenia do them the decisive favour required.

Four years later, the team produced two quite brilliant results against Germany but their place in the play-offs ultimately came down to the fact that Martin O'Neill's side got a desperately late winner in Georgia while the Scots, who thought they had done the hard bit by drawing at Lansdowne Road, were beaten there.

Manager’s critics

Of course, the “grasp of mathematics” line will still be accurate in the event that his side actually slips up on Saturday evening but it won’t sound quite as smart if he actually has to deliver it post-match.

Kenny’s underlying difficulty is that while he commands a lot of respect and support from among people who rate the League of Ireland and, by extension, his achievements in it, there were a lot of people out there when he got the job who needed to be persuaded. Then there is the smaller number who might never be.

To date, for all the challenges he has faced – and because of them no doubt – he can’t really hope to have actually won all that many neutrals over. The brand of football being played is undoubtedly brighter but neither the seven-game goal drought that was finally ended this week nor the ongoing search for a first actual win are the sort of things that silence a manager’s critics.

Beating Luxembourg would hardly earn Kenny any great acclaim either but it would prevent him having to head into an almost six-month stretch without a competitive game against the big backdrop of a grim-looking group table.

The manager was appropriately respectful of the opposition on Friday and on one level he is right when he says that the visitors are a different proposition to the Luxembourg of times past.

A lot of work has been done there to produce an improvement and the Nations League – in which they have won three of six games on each occasion – has been good for them.

In the Euro2020 qualifying campaign they lost 1-0 to group winners Ukraine in Kiev where the Serbs were beaten by five. In Belgrade, they lost 3-2 because Aleksandar Mitrovic got a brace. No shame at all in that.

Having continued to make a lot on Friday, though, of how well he feels his own team did in the Serbian capital this week, Kenny could clearly do with taking the next step against a nation that, while clearly capable of springing the odd surprise, tends to settle for running better sides close.

They did that much, as it happens, way back in September 1987 on their last visit to Dublin when Paul McGrath’s goal secured a 2-1 win for the hosts which represented another vital step towards a first major championship. Ireland, though, have never had “a Luxembourg” and must-win game or not, Kenny could very much do with them not starting now.