For Stephen Kenny, this evening’s showdown with Luxembourg is a must-win game with the potential for a no-win conclusion.
He’s unlikely to get much credit in the bank for registering a victory against the lowest-ranked fourth seeds in the draw, even though it has been roundly acknowledged that the travelling side are not the rabble they used to be.
If Kenny’s side scrape a victory, there will be criticism because it’s only Luxembourg. If they stroll to success, enthusiasm will be checked because it’s only Luxembourg.
But it’s still better than not winning at all.
After putting an end to the run of minutes without a goal, the more pressing need is to end the wait for a victory under this management team.
Failing to do so would quickly consign the memories of Belgrade to the history books and set up a pretty nervous summer for the Ireland manager.
Maybe it says a lot about the standing of Irish football now that a home game with Luxembourg is marked down as a game of serious importance as opposed to a box that needs ticking yet that’s where we are right now.
The manager was noticeably keen to stray away from any declaration of the fixture as a must-win, deliberately steering clear of a quote that might come back to haunt him.
“It depends on your grasp of mathematics but anything is possible,” he replied, after a long pause when asked if Ireland’s top two hopes would be dead after two games if they dropped points.
Yet he knew where the question was coming from. There’s no sugarcoating the reality.
“It’s important that we win the game. We want to win the game. Must-win. What is that? Is it an adjective? What does must-win mean? We want to do well and we’re going to be very determined to try and win the game, that is our objective,” he continued.
“We have to earn the right to win. It is a game that we have huge desire to win. I’m disappointed as a manager that we have not won one of the games
“The players’ attitude is exceptional, we played very well the other day and we’re disappointed to lose. All the players will give everything of themselves to win this game and hopefully we can do that.”
Kenny was vague enough on the subject matter of how Ireland might go about doing so.
Granted, he stressed that it was important to have a “level of speed” in their build-up play, to operate at pace rather than get bogged down in the slow build-up that was a feature of their last Aviva Stadium tie, the drab 0-0 draw with Bulgaria in November.
He made ten changes from that team for the midweek loss in Belgrade, some enforced and others a product of welcoming absentees back.
Dara O’Shea was the only player retained, with Kenny effectively admitting that his recent match sharpness ensured he got the nod over Shane Duffy. His composure on the ball was also referenced. It’s unclear how many changes he will make for this fixture.
After declaring with certainty Mark Travers would start midweek, he was non-committal in that department with Manchester City’s Gavin Bazunu – on loan at Rochdale – the alternative.
Aaron Connolly is definitely out of the equation and it’s possible that may contribute to a change of shape although it’s possible that a switch was on the cards either way.
Kenny did strongly suggest that the switch to 3-5-2 against the Serbs was influenced by how the natives were likely to set up.
He acknowledged the difficulty with switching from game to game. “You can’t ignore that possibility,” he replied, when asked if a horses-for-courses approach would be adopted.
“The way you achieve success is generally through continuity, it is a contradiction to say that but you have to adapt depending on the players you have available and the opposition you face.
“We played 3-4-1-2 against Serbia. We had Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty in the same team and Ciarn Clark, a left-footed player, to play in the back three. You have Enda Stevens and Matt Doherty who have played wing-backs for their clubs, and you have Aaron Connolly who is suited to playing in a front two, playing against a 3-4-3 system that Serbia play, it made a lot of sense.”
It may not make sense against Luxembourg, especially shorn of Connolly and it’s plausible that either James Collins or Shane Long is introduced as a central striker in something closer to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 even if that switch might leave Doherty vulnerable as a consequence.
With Callum Robinson reported to be fit, he could switch to either flank while the manager suggested that both Robbie Brady and James McClean are showing up reasonably well in training. “Robbie trained very well today and I didn’t expect him to be at that level when I saw him because he is a player who sometimes needs to find a rhythm,” said Kenny. “When he’s really fit, he genuinely does excite me.”
Jason Knight comes into the picture too, with Kenny indicating it was a marginal call between the Derby player and Jayson Molumby for the opening game of the triple-header. Evidently, Jeff Hendrick is being put under pressure.
The guests will be seeing some old faces across the course of this group, having locked horns with Portugal and Serbia in the Euro 2020 qualifiers, so this is a novelty by comparison.
Interestingly, while they lost 3-0 away and 2-0 at home to the Portuguese, they gave it a real go against the Serbs. Like Ireland, they scored twice in Belgrade but were also undone by a Mitrovic brace in a 3-2 reverse.
The home match finished in a 3-1 Serbian success, yet a remarkable stat from that fixture is that Luxembourg had 23 shots on goal, with seven on target as compared to four from the guests.
“In the past they would have sat deep,” says Kenny. “But they are quite an expansive team. They play 4-3-3, make the pitch big and really try and play so I’m expecting quite an open game.”
The Dubliner can empathise with a mission to change the personality of a side and this is the type of fixture where Irish sides have been accused of giving the opposition too much respect.
Kenny will be getting plenty of disrespect if his side fall short.