World Cup Qualifier Group A: Serbia v Republic of Ireland, Stadion Rajko Mitic, Belgrade, Wednesday, 7.45pm Irish time – Live RTÉ2 and Sky Sports Football
There’s an old gag about Irish railway stations which has a visitor asking why they aren’t closer to the centre of towns and the local (I’m pretty sure Moss Keane’s name was attached to the version I heard) replying that we prefer put them out where the tracks are.
As he embarks on his attempt to guide Ireland to what would be a first World Cup finals tournament in 20 years , Stephen Kenny, like the guys who got to pick the spots for the stations, might wish the starting point for the project was a little more promising.
Ireland flew to Belgrade on Monday without six of the players who started his first game in charge last autumn and a couple more who would have been firm contenders to feature. The line-up on Wednesday night will include a third choice goalkeeper who is not playing for his Championship club and a couple more who are finding first-team game time hard enough to come by.
An ongoing problem, though, is the indifferent form shown by a handful of players who should be at the peak of their careers right now. Back at Euro 2016, the hope would have been that the likes of Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick would be having the team built around them by now. Instead, they rack up the caps because there are not stronger options.
A few look to be coming through and Ireland could have no better manager right now to bring them on than Kenny. Dara O’Shea, Jason Knight and Jayson Molumby all have decent shouts of being involved in Belgrade but quite a few others among the under-21 side that shone under him have a lot to do at club level yet.
For now, Kenny must put his trust in the bulk of the group he inherited from Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy but get more out of them. If he could get the best of them out on the one pitch at the one time, we would at least be able to fairly judge his ability to maximise the potential but it is yet to happen and in the current circumstances bringing back even a point from Belgrade will be a very respectable achievement.
About all we know with absolute certainty regarding the personnel he will select is that with both Darren Randolph and Caoimhín Kelleher out, Mark Travers will start in goal. The 21-year-old is, as Kenny said on Tuesday, a promising talent but it says something about the manager’s predicament that he finds himself pointing to a game in May 2019 as evidence of it.
The bigger actual choices he must make, however, include whether to stick with Shane Duffy, whose move to Celtic was billed as a season-long ride on an open-topped bus but has turned out to be the career equivalent of being hit by one. The tone of Kenny’s support for the 29-year-old this past week certainly suggests to the Derryman being retained.
Then there is the matter of the right back, where two of the team’s most talented players like to reside. Séamus Coleman, it is generally agreed, has been playing well enough to reclaim the spot from Matt Doherty, whose first season at Tottenham has been difficult, most obviously on the defensive side of things. The question is whether it is worth accommodating the Dubliner anyway.
Given the loss of prominent players elsewhere it certainly seems to make sense and while the detail of the ‘how’ remains up for grabs, with Kenny suggesting there was more than one way of achieving it, there is something to be said for matching up against the 3-4-3 that the Serbs are expected to play. That would see Doherty having some responsibility for defending down the right-hand flank but a lot of scope too to do what he does best when there is the opportunity to push forward.
Beyond that, the biggest issue is who is handed the lead role in getting a first goal in what will be, at kick-off, 660 minutes of open play.
At his best, Aaron Connolly’s pace and invention makes him seem like an obvious candidate but for all the goals he scored at underage level, his senior career has at this still very early stage been characterised by some pretty poor finishing. He seems sure to start, though, despite the rib injury that had sidelined him recently at Brighton, because he brings so much else to the table.
Kenny gives every impression of believing Callum Robinson has the ability too to make a significant impact while Conor Hourihane’s absence adds weight to the case for Robbie Brady to start, given the Burnley midfielder’s ability from set pieces.
Daryl Horgan played his way into the team before Christmas and Kenny might well be inclined to retain him, while you could make cases for Shane Long or James Collins to start in the central role, just not entirely compelling ones.
For all the obvious challenges involved, there was no shortage of conviction about Kenny when he says he has a firm sense of how he wants his team to approach the game and that “the instructions will be clear”.
In truth, his impact on the team’s approach has been apparent more or less from day one and the performance, as he repeatedly points out, in Slovakia when he had John Egan, James McCarthy and David McGoldrick involved, was hugely promising, even if the finishing ultimately let the side down.
Another performance like that may be needed now but it would give Ireland every chance of taking something out of the game. And though Kenny insisted on Tuesday that the team would try to win in much the same manner it did in Bratislava, the key difference is that even nil-all after 90 minutes in Belgrade will actually get the campaign fairly nicely on track.
SERBIA: Rajkovic (Reims); Milenkovic (Fiorentina), Mitrovic (Strasbourg), Spajic (Feyenoord); Lazovic (Hellas Verona), Gudelj (Seville), Maksimovic (Getafe), Kostic (Eintracht Frankfurt); Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio); Vlahovic (Fiorenetina), Tadic (Ajax).
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Travers (Bournemouth); Coleman (Everton), Duffy (Celtic), Clark (Newcastle United); Doherty (Tottenham), Browne (Preston), Cullen (Anderlecht), Stevens (Sheffield United); Brady (Burnley), Connolly (Brighton), Robinson (West Brom).
Referee: D Massa (Italy).