All eyes on Ronaldo
With Cristiano Ronaldo playing his first game since his move to Manchester United, and seeking to break the all-time record for international goals, it’s fair to say that Ireland are more of a supporting cast for Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier in Faro as opposed to a central attraction.
UEFA’s decision to ban away fans from travelling means they won’t even have supporters to cheer them on in the Algarve.
The focus on Ronaldo is inevitable, and the Ireland players have even been speaking about their excitement this week. Stephen Kenny’s squad has a youthful profile so their childhood memories of football are built around the Portuguese superstar.
Just four members of Kenny’s travelling party were involved in the last clash between the sides, a 5-1 defeat for a Martin O’Neill managed team in New York ahead of the 2014 World Cup.
Ronaldo was actually a subdued presence on that occasion, with a knee injury that affected his contribution in Brazil holding him back.
Portugal are far more than a one-man team. Ireland striker Adam Idah is Ronaldo obsessed but as he listed off the names of Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva in discussing the other players he rates, he gave a wry smile. Ruben Dias is probably worthy of mention. Diego Jota too. Renato Sanches and Joao Felix are at least absent through injury.
All the eyes will be on Ronaldo, of course, and the 1.241/4 on offer about a home victory is hard to argue with based on the form lines.
Value lies elsewhere.
Ireland’s strong defensive hand
This is a proper competitive game, yet the anticipation levels in Ireland have been reduced by the March double header of defeats to Portugal and Luxembourg. Thoughts of Qatar now seem distant and the real significance of these games may revolve around the manager’s future with his contract up next year.
If he wants to stay on for the Euro 2024 mission, he needs to produce something good over the next week but the home games with Azerbaijan and Serbia may offer a better chance of joy.
Kenny has ruled out picking a weakened team for the first leg of the triple header, and that’s hardly surprising as he really could do without a heavy defeat.
On the bright side, he does have some good news stories from a defensive perspective. Ireland will likely play with three at the back and Shane Duffy’s revival at Brighton and the presence of John Egan and Dara O’Shea means Kenny can field three formidable centre halves.
Skipper Seamus Coleman is an alternative for the right of three but can operate at right wing back. Enda Stevens is absent so James McClean or Matt Doherty are the experienced candidates for left wing back.
This should provide good protection for teenage goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, the highly rated Man City prospect that is on loan at Portsmouth.
Further up the park, however, the loss of Callum Robinson and Alan Browne for Covid-related issues is a problem and Kenny’s midfielders are short on game time with Conor Hourihane’s loan move to Sheffield United going through on Monday.
Hourihane, Harry Arter, West Brom recruit Jayson Molumby and Newcastle’s Jeff Hendrick have barely kicked a ball this term. This is a problem when you are about to face a side that will keep the ball better and drain energy. So what happens here?
Expect a slow burner
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this match will end in anything other than a Portugese success. Nevertheless, the September window can be a funny one. Portugal’s Euros ended in disappointment and their star man has been caught up in other business across the last week.
Ireland produced a solid display in Hungary in June and, while this fixture is important for Portugal in their battle with Serbia in the group, it’s by no means guaranteed that they will burst out of the blocks. And Ireland do have a competent and match sharp rearguard that should be capable of hitting their stride early.
The bet that appeals is a half-time draw and a Portugal success at 4.216/5.
Another point to note on that is that Kenny’s team have actually performed quite well in the opening half during his tenure, taking the lead in Serbia in March before errors after the break caught them out. In their competitive away dates last autumn against Bulgaria, Slovakia, Finland, and Wales, nil all was the half-time score on every occasion. Portugal are a step up, yet it’s a point to note.
On a similar theme, and as an alternative suggestion, the 2.0421/20 about Under 2.5 Goals is worth the play. For all Portugal’s attacking quality, it would be a disappointment if Ireland are torn to pieces.
A positive result could dramatically alter the perception of the manager. But emerging with a respectable showing might be the ceiling of what’s possible here.