Kenny backs Ireland’s youngsters to end miserable run in Azerbaijan clash

Manager can ‘see players emerging’ following impressive display in defeat to Portugal

The Republic of Ireland squad training ahead of their clash with  Azerbaijan at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

The Republic of Ireland squad training ahead of their clash with Azerbaijan at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

 

Republic of Ireland v Azerbaijan

Aviva Stadium, 5pm (live RTÉ Two and Sky Sports Football)

No Irish team has ever gained so much belief from so devastating a loss. But here they are, strolling up Lansdowne Road from temporary digs in the Herbert Park Hotel, as Stephen Kenny ensures that these young professionals, having become internationally established men during Wednesday’s heart-breaking Cristiano Ronaldo experience, are comfortable inside an Aviva Stadium that will crackle to the tune of 25,000 supporters.

“From the performance the other night you can see players emerging,” said Kenny of the 2-1 defeat outside Faro that almost certainly closed the book on qualification for next year’s World Cup in Qatar. “Like, Josh Cullen struggled to get into the squad when I first started but his move to Anderlecht has really elevated his game.”

Cullen is as good an example as any of the starting XI who performed above themselves at Estádio Algarve. The 25-year-old midfielder had enough licence to ping an outside of the right pass that gifted Aaron Connolly a goal chance just before half-time. Inexplicably, the Brighton striker hesitated but his eventual chip went out for the Jamie McGrath corner that had John Egan blowing kisses and screaming “I love ya Ma!” having spotted Mary Egan immediately after an unforgettable goal.

Presumably, Uefa and Fifa are too busy reinvestigating the Hungarian ultras to punish the Egan clan for finding seats at a venue that had banned Irish fans.

“Stay, stay, stay!” commanded Jeff Hendrick, insisting on prolonging those huddled celebrations and highlighting how street-wise Ireland are becoming, as this band of brothers – a unity solidified during a June camp in Girona – strolled back over halfway much to the annoyance of the Portuguese and the referee.

Flag-planting victory

This evening’s result is for keeps. It demands a flag-planting victory to end all the misery Kenny’s Ireland have suffered since the FAI unseated Mick McCarthy in April 2020.

To overwhelm an eminently beatable Azerbaijan would draw a line under an unbelievable number of mishaps – from that unseen Wembley video to 15 players caught in Covid’s crosshairs – with another win needed against Serbia on Tuesday before the wounds caused by Luxembourg sacking the Aviva last March can begin to heal.

Kenny’s faith in the coming generation against Portugal was encapsulated by Adam Idah leading the line against defenders of the calibre of Pepe and Rúben Dias. A similar showing tonight might prompt his Norwich City manager Daniel Farke to loosen the leash.

Connolly cannot be faulted for effort but three miscues, coupled with Kenny’s concern about players not playing regularly at club level being able to repeat exhaustive standards inside three days, suggests that Callum Robinson will partner Idah now that he has recovered from coronavirus.

“I think Aaron Connolly is at only about 70 per cent of his potential at the moment,” said Kenny in defence of the 21-year-old Galway native. “There is so much more from him. He did a brilliant job for us and punched holes in that left channel all night. We have to nurture him and try to get him to fulfil his potential.”

Presuming that Robinson skipped through training yesterday, three goals in four English Championship starts for West Brom makes for an irresistible promotion, with Connolly and Troy Parrot offering impact off the bench.

Andrew Omobamidele should replace the injured Dara O’Shea on the left of three centre-backs.

Kenny is continually empowering his players to embrace a sensible passing game that the manager has refused to abandon in 23 years of senior coaching.

Gavin Bazunu’s ability to play the pivot role on loan to Portsmouth in League One was targeted and exposed by Portugal, leading to the Ronaldo penalty that the teenager did save, but a ball into feet style will not be discouraged.

“The easy thing to say is ‘don’t take any risk and we kick everything long’ but that is not the approach we are adopting. No, listen, we are happy to play out,” said Kenny despite Bazunu’s error. “That wasn’t the wisest decision all right. That was too high risk for sure, but we are not going to change because of one mistake. We are geared towards playing that way. That doesn’t mean we can’t beat the press by chipping it into Adam Idah, so he can hold it up and play.

Live or die

“The element of variation is good, all the players are comfortable in possession and we are comfortable to build attacks from the back.”

And that is where the Kenny era will live or die, with tonight’s result putting the whole idea of trusting a manager who learned his trade at Dalymount, the Brandywell and Oriel Park in jeopardy once again.

This time there is tangible evidence, from 88 minutes on the Algarve, that the worm is turning.

“Psychologically,” he added, “we have to get ourselves prepared early. We understand the challenges Azerbaijan bring”.

“We need to start the game well and we need to bring a level of intensity because Azerbaijan are a good technical team with good passing movements. We need to be creative on the night and show that we can break them down.”

Ireland (possible): Bazunu (Portsmouth, loan from Manchester City); Coleman (Everton, capt), Omobamidele (Norwich City), Shane Duffy (Brighton and Hove Albion), John Egan (Sheffield United), Matt Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur); Cullen (Anderlecht), Hendrick (Newcastle United), Jamie McGrath (St Mirren); Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Idah (Norwich City).

Azerbaijan (possible): Mahammadaliyev (Qarabag); Medvedev (Qarabag, capt), Haghverdi (Sumgayit), Salahly (Keshla); Hüseynov (Qarabag), Qarayev (Qarabag), Mahmudov (Neftchi Baku), Ibrahimli (Qarabag); Bayramov (Qarabag), Ghorbani (Sumgayit), Ozobic (Qarabag).

Group A results so far...

Portugal 2-1 Republic of Ireland

Republic of Ireland 0-1 Luxembourg

Serbia 3-2 Republic of Ireland

Luxembourg 2-1 Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan 1-2 Serbia

Portugal 1-0 Azerbaijan

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