Football/Soccer

Covid minefield may take its toll on Republic of Ireland in Helsinki

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny inspects has had to deal with problems far away from preparing his team

Nations League B4: Finland v Republic of Ireland (tonight, Helsinki Olympic Stadium, 5pm)

FEW international squads around the world have been ravaged by Covid protocol quite like the Republic of Ireland over the past week.

As the squad tentatively stepped onto the plane bound for Helsinki yesterday morning, the manager, coaching staff, players and FAI officials were probably keeping their fingers and toes crossed of no more Covid drama ahead of tonight's Nations League encounter against Finland.

New boss Stephen Kenny had a reduced squad of just 18 players to pick from for last Sunday's Nations League game against Wales after losing seven members to Covid-related matters – many of whom were starters.

Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly – two players ruled out of last Thursday's Euro play-off tie due to Covid protocol – are available again but Kenny is still without the five players – John Egan, Callum Robinson, Callum O'Dowda, Alan Browne and the still unnamed squad member.

Still reeling from the effects of Monday night's positive test of an unnamed player, the ravaging impact of Covid will certainly test the mental fortitude of the coaching staff and indeed the players.

But in the aftermath of Sunday's scoreless draw and decent performance from the Irish, Matt Doherty didn't use the Covid issues as an excuse: “We obviously had enough players to play the game and played well.”

Clearly, though, the feasibility of playing international games during the second major flare-up of Covid19 around the globe is becoming more problematic.

It's easy to get side-tracked by all things related to the virus but, for the purposes of our sanity, it's good to ponder for a time what's actually gone on between the white lines of the football pitch since Kenny made his senior managerial bow against Bulgaria four games ago.

The big statistics could warp the picture somewhat. Played four games. Drew a blank in three of them. No goals from open play. Just one goal scored – a late Shane Duffy header from a set piece in Sofia. Out of the Euros. And cut adrift from the top two positions in their Nations League group.

Of course, those stats don't take into account the last three squads being ravaged by absenteeism – but amid this quite unique storm Ireland's passing rate has gone through the roof.

The Republic are the second most accurate passing team in the Nations League (87 per cent completion rate) alongside Portugal and Belgium, with Spain out in front on 89 per cent, and attempts on goal are up significantly from the last Nations League campaign.

Passes alone don't necessarily guarantee anything – but it was interesting to note Ryan Giggs and Aaron Ramsey's assessments of the contrast between the last time they played the Irish, under Martin O'Neill, and Kenny's work-in-progress.

The fact that Kenny's teams press higher up the pitch - often you can find six, seven or sometimes eight green jerseys in the opposition's half of the field – which prompted Ramsey to observe: “Ireland press a lot more now and they like to play with the ball so we had to try and adapt to that and at times we found it difficult.”

O'Neill's Ireland teams sat back and were often devoid of a strategic plan to get up the field in any meaningful way.

Mick McCarthy's tenure was hamstrung from the start insofar as he could not lay foundations for the future because his job was singularly about qualifying for Euro 2020.

For example, he brought Glenn Whelan back to anchor the midfield due to a lack of ready-made options while Kenny is on firmer ground and can build for the future, already evidenced by a host of U21 players being promoted to the senior ranks.

Kenny has also reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation as opposed to the 4-3-3 which showed glaring weaknesses against Bulgaria and Finland.

The early lessons from Kenny's regime to date are the team needs more of a cutting edge, albeit they were denied the pace of Connolly in the last two games; the right back position is still up for grabs between Matt Doherty and Seamus Coleman, although the latter is currently injured.

Even though he gives more balance to the left side of the team, Conor Hourihane's midfield position is probably under threat from Jayson Molumby who showed more dynamism in the Wales game.

Being played in an attacking midfield role, Jeff Hendrick has to do more, while Robbie Brady simply needs more games in his legs before he can be properly and fairly judged.

Aaron Connolly and David McGoldrick (currently injured) have established themselves as key to the Irish attack.

Tonight's hosts still have designs on topping the group after recording back-to-back wins against Ireland and Bulgaria with five of the side that conquered the Irish in Dublin last month playing a pivotal role in their 2-0 home win over the Bulgarians last weekend.

Given the emotional roller-coaster of the last week, a draw would be deemed a decent result in Helsinki tonight.

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Football/Soccer