Ireland’s manager debate
A triple header that started with so much promise for Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland is now on the verge of ending with the team in crisis.
After coming within minutes of a famous victory in Portugal, the hangover from a pair of late concessions spilled over in Saturday’s Dublin draw with Azerbaijan.
Kenny had another scenario in mind for his first game in front of Irish fans with Shane Duffy’s late equaliser only succeeding in dampening down the level of criticism. It did not remove questions over his future.
The stats aren’t pretty. One point from four games in this campaign and an over all record of one win in 15 paints an ugly picture.
Supporters of Kenny would stress that he was tasked with a major rebuilding job and the three strikers he picked against Azerbaijan – Troy Parrott, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly – are all still eligible for U-21 level. Idah and Connolly are yet to score for their country.
Kenny’s critics say he should have gone with a different attacking set-up that took the heat off the trio.
Either way, Ireland are completely out of the World Cup equation and failure to win this game would confirm the inevitable. Kenny is engaged in another fight, but he could do with a different opponent.
The free scoring Serbian threat
Serbia are in a straight shootout for Portugal with top spot, with both teams taking 10 points from a possible 12. The pair drew 2-2 in Belgrade.
But the key to Serbia’s results has been the astonishing form of Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, as Ireland found to their cost back in a 3-2 defeat in March. Kenny’s side took an early lead that was cancelled out by the exciting Dusan Vlahovic but it was a second-half brace from Mitrovic that killed them.
After scoring against Portugal, he then went on to score both goals in a narrow triumph in Azerbaijan and bagged a brace in their 4-1 defeat of Luxembourg on Saturday. That’s seven goals in four games.
The guests also have the creativity of Dusan Tadic and the option to include either Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic or Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić. It’s an intimidating proposition for Ireland.
However, Serbia are not exactly solid at the other end, with just two clean sheets from their last 11 competitive matches.
Their status as favourites is deserved and with Seamus Coleman joining Dara O’Shea on the sidelines, Kenny has lost two important defenders. Whatever strategy he employs, there will have to be an element of risk but the suspicion lingers that Ireland will be more comfortable against a team trying to dominate because Kenny has players who can counter into space.
From a punting perspective, the standout bet is straightforward and that’s the 2.01/1 about Both Teams to Score. The real question mark hangs over Ireland’s ability to live up to their end of the bargain – but Serbia have a track record of helping teams with that.
Kenny wanted to change the national stereotype of the Irish side but hasn’t succeeded.
That was more of a stylistic thing, but there are characteristics that should remain – namely the fact that when expectations are low and backs are against the wall, there tends to be a response. In fact, they have performed well in all of the competitive games under Kenny where they were the clearly defined underdog.
James McClean’s inclusion has divided opinion in Ireland but, in the absence of Coleman, he will be expected to embrace a leadership role.
After a bruising 72 hours, it really would be a surprise if Kenny’s team suddenly retreated into their shell. He can strengthen his attack by adding in the intelligent movement of Callum Robinson and going for more experience in midfield. With the home crowd behind them, there really should be a reaction from Ireland early doors.
Serbia will take risks and leave gaps and, if Ireland can stay compact in their shape and strike at the right times, then it’s really not beyond the realms of possibility that they can forge a half-time lead with a small play at 4.03/1 tempting.
Seeing it through is another story. Serbia have stepped up at vital times in this campaign, coming from two behind at the interval to draw with Portugal and advancing off the ropes in Azerbaijan.
They also have a stronger bench than their hosts. But the idea of Ireland really making them sweat is plausible even if the formbook suggests otherwise.