Form of defenders has been a bright spot but Stephen Kenny faces selection dilemma
The eyes of the football world are back on a game involving Ireland, just not in the way Stephen Kenny would have envisaged.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a fair chunk of the global viewers whose news feeds are clogged with pictures of events in the Algarve this evening will have minimal awareness of their presence.
Cristiano Ronaldo was already going to be the centre of attention for this fixture as it represents his latest opportunity to become the highest goalscorer in the history of international football.
However, his decision to rejoin Manchester United last weekend has brought another layer of attention to this fixture.
Just 7,865 fans will be present in the stadium and both the Portuguese and Irish associations have been rejecting last-minute media applications as this fixture jumped in significance.
The Ronaldo angle may even be an impediment to any lingering chances of admission for Irish fans that booked flights at a time when it appeared restrictions might loosen.
Instead, access is restricted to local passport holders. In the cobblestone streets of Faro, a sprinkling of green jerseys have been spotted.
They have ventured here in hope rather than expectation, a line that could extend to the team they support even though Kenny and his players will never publicly entertain that line of thought.
Throughout the build-up to this game, the Dubliner has reiterated the stance that the approach will be more nuanced than all-out defence.
He says that allowing a gifted team like Portugal to do that would be a recipe for disaster and a man-marking job on Ronaldo is out of the question given the importance of a coherent defensive unit to cope with the multiple threats around him.
“Diogo Jota has scored two goals in the campaign so far, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva are the other attackers in their front four,” said Kenny, who will never have faced a team with that arsenal.
“They’d be the main attacking threats apart from Ronaldo. I’m sure with the Portuguese quality they’ll force us to defend at times, and we acknowledge that. It’s not our intention to be set up in a defensive way.”
It just so happens, however, that the strength of this Irish side might be in the defensive department, certainly when it comes to morale and match practice anyway.
Kenny acknowledged that the situation with his midfielders is a concern, with Harry Arter (Charlton), Conor Hourihane (Sheffield United) and Jayson Molumby (West Brom) all securing loan switches that should allow them to get their club seasons under way.
However, they are playing catch-up fitness-wise which isn’t ideal when ‘energy’ is a key requirement for this test, according to their boss. Josh Cullen will surely start in the engine-room, but the choice between Hourihane, Arter, Molumby and Jeff Hendrick is far from appealing from a battery-power perspective.
Kenny does like continuity and Cullen and Hourihane did get time together in the summer, but the plus side of the equation is that if they get the nod again, they will be supported by an in-form rearguard.
Indeed, the big tactical decision for Kenny, in the assumption he sticks with a back-three, is where he opts to deploy Séamus Coleman as that will have a domino effect elsewhere.
If Coleman is picked on the right of the three, that’s potentially bad news for Shane Duffy given that John Egan and Dara O’Shea would expect to figure in the centre and on the left respectively.
Pushing Coleman out to right wing-back would allow Duffy, Egan and O’Shea to function as a formidable back-three but raise questions about where Matt Doherty stands. He could switch to the left to replace Enda Stevens, but James McClean is in the mix there too.
“It’s good competition to have. They’re the problems we want,” said Kenny, who was heartened by the defensive improvement in June’s scoreless draw with Hungary which will be put to the test now.
“That’s been a real plus for us, that the defenders have been playing regularly and are in good form.”
He does have games against Azerbaijan and Serbia to consider too, and it’s plausible that Coleman could be wing-back for this test and then pushed to the right of the three in a fixture where Ireland might have more of the ball.
A wildcard scenario would be to push Doherty further forward into another role, with Jason Knight thriving on the right of a front-three in the second half in Hungary.
In this department of the pitch, the balancing act for Kenny is to figure out the best combination of his attacking options.
Adam Idah seems to be his choice to lead the line, although he does have the experience of James Collins and Shane Long available. Yet the return of Aaron Connolly offers another option in terms of pace. Daryl Horgan has been consistent throughout Kenny’s tenure, even if he seems to miss out on marginal calls.
That would be a sprightly front trio from a counter-attacking perspective. Troy Parrott’s form at MK Dons is encouraging, though, but he did find it slightly harder in Budapest when asked to operate deeper. He’s in better shape now coming off the back of an encouraging start to his latest loan but it may be that he comes to the fore later in the window.
Kenny did speak about the overlapping Portuguese full-backs João Cancelo and Raphaël Guerreiro, a challenge for a visiting team that is operating with wing-backs.
In that context, it’s possible that the forward players will need to have the defensive awareness to spin wide and try and occupy them.
The ideal-world scenario involves Ireland setting the tone in some way when, in all likelihood, Portugal’s attitude will influence the tempo.
In a stadium at 25pc capacity, they will intimidate with ability as opposed to atmosphere. Ireland need to tighten up the errors that dogged them in Serbia, while avoiding a bruising build-up to the pair of Dublin games which might have much more influence on the shelf-life of their manager.