Ireland should have know-how and quality to emerge from Armenia without fresh burden
Stephen Kenny’s revival as Ireland manager has effectively been about unloading the baggage accumulated in his early struggles.
Every step forward has lightened the load created by unticked boxes.
First, there was the 11-hour goal drought that extended from the injury-time in his opening game to an early strike in Serbia in March of 2021, with Kenny repeatedly referencing the 23 goals his side have scored in the intervening period.
Then there was the agonising wait for a win which eventually came in his 12th fixture in the ho t seat, with Troy Parrott coming to the rescue.
After that, the competitive victory was the elusive one, a feat that was delivere d in Baku last October and repeated in Luxembourg the following month with the away support vocal in their support of the manager, a factor that contributed to his securing of a new deal.
With an encouraging draw against Belgium followed by a last- ditch success over Lithuania, again with the help of Parrott, statistics are starting to become the 50-year-old's friend. One loss in 12 paints a picture of progress.
Recent football history hangs over this encounter in Yerevan, however.
For the locals, it's the memory of their painful defeat in Dublin 11 years ago when they were starting to dream of qualification for Euros.
Controversial refereeing decisions that night represent their Henry handball moment, or perhaps more pertinently one of those great injustices that John Giles and Eoin Hand suffered in their tenures, the stealing away of a breakthrough that could have changed the sport in the country. Ireland's feint recollection of the episode makes it worse.
Every nation has their own issues to deal with. For all that Kenny's standing has been strengthened by a resurgence in results, the beginning of Ireland's third Nations League series brings unwanted flashbacks.
In a competition which is supposed to pit teams against nations of similar standing, Ireland are one of five countries around the continent that have yet to register a win in the tournament. Northern Ireland, a regressing Iceland, Andorra and San Marino are the others.
Martin O'Neill was in charge for Ireland's first four Nations League games in 2018, a joyless experience that was followed up in 2020 by Kenny's rough introduction. He grew somewhat animated when asked if this was a monkey he wished to remove from his back.
"It's not fair to assess that campaign at all," he said, reminding the audience of how Covid issues decimated his squad, expanding on close contact rules and other matters that are best left in the past. "I know people want to criticise that period and people really went after us in that period but over the last year the players have played brilliant. The Irish public really identify with this team now."
What Kenny should have learned by this juncture, though, is that the easiest way to silence any critics is to just tick that box. A win this evening (5pm local, 2pm Irish) will concentrate Nations League talk on the future tense. The local expectation is that the 14,000-capacity Republican Stadium will be in the region of 60 to 70 pc full.
Interest levels are reasonably high but protests on the streets of Yerevan are the major talking point this week, a consequence of the latest developments in their war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh.
There was a heavy police presence on the streets, a curiosity for the sprinkling of Irish fans visible around the city. More were arriving last night, with social media reports of a rowdy travelling contingent on a plane being told to check their behaviour by airport cops upon arrival.
Kenny’s target here is to deliver a result which backs up the view his team have found a form of stability. When it was put to Kenny that he had started 24 different players across eight World Cup qualifiers, he indicated there would be less chopping and changing going forward although this four-game window will result in some rotation .
"That’s the evolution of the team, the building of the team,” he says, before mentioning that the likes of Michael Obafemi, Festy Ebosele and CJ Hamilton can still play their way up the pecking order. “Nothing is set in stone,” he asserted.
It’s true that it is now easier to predict Kenny’s starting XI, albeit without absolute certainty. A back concern for Gavin Bazunu has raised doubts about the well- being of his preferred number one, but the 20-year-old did participate in the lion’s share of training and his manager suggested he would be fine. Caoimhí n Kelleher is on standby.
Sé amus Coleman is expected to operate at right wing- back with Enda Stevens starting ahead of James McClean on the left side. Burnley’s Nathan Collins is match sharp and in line to join John Egan and Shane Duffy in the back three. Josh Cullen’s unexpected availability should allow him to resume his partnership with Jeff Hendrick, and two of three forward positions will be filled by Callum Robinson and Chiedozie Ogbene.
Indications from training are that Parrott will get the third spot ahead of Jason Knight, with the selection of a player that would be considered an attacker over one that would be described as a midfielder a statement of sorts. If Kenny goes this way, Parrott would operate off the left side with Ogbene on the right of the roaming No 9 Robinson. Movement will be key with Parrott more inclined to drop in behind into pockets. He’s grown in stature from his loan at MK Dons, and now needs to bring that into a meaningful Irish date.
Managing the conditions will be central to the game- plan. If temperatures exceed 32 degrees, water breaks are mandatory but the Romanian match officials can decide to introduce them if the dial doesn’t go that high. Maturity will be required to judge the correct intensity, but it’s certain that subs will have a big role to play here.
Armenia are a curious animal, with their form going off a cliff following a strong start to last year. A nine- goal friendly drubbing in March hints at their main frailty, yet they do have creativity in the forward ranks so Ireland will need to drive home their experience in that area. Krasnodar’s Eduard Spertsyan is the name to note.
Still, if Ireland are to reach Euro 2024, they need to adopt a clinical approach to fixtures of this nature. Armenia know the terrain and can take scalps at home, yet they have dropped to 92nd in the world for a reason. Ireland should have the quality and know-how to emerge from here without a fresh burden.