Football/Soccer

Must-win? Knife-edge? Stephen Kenny is not feeling the pressure to land first win against Luxembourg

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny hopes to land his first win against Luxembourg tonight

FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifying Group A: Republic of Ireland v Luxembourg (tonight, Aviva Stadium Dublin, 7.45pm)

COULD it all crash and burn in an empty Aviva stadium against Luxembourg – or will a rainy night in Dublin be this Ireland team’s platform from which they propel themselves to next year’s World Cup finals in Qatar?

Just two games in and Group A is allegedly on a knife-edge already.

But margins being what they are in World Cup qualification campaigns, nearly every game is in the realm of knife-edge.

Must win? Well, that’s a moot point for the Republic of Ireland boss Stephen Kenny who saw the headline-writer galloping towards him, albeit via zoom, from a mile away yesterday.

For the record, tonight’s 2022 World Cup qualifier is a must-win game – the canny Dubliner knows it, but he wasn’t about to collaborate in seeing ‘must-win’ headlines emblazoned on the back pages of the following day’s newspapers.

No disrespect to tonight’s visitors to the capital but if you can’t beat Luxembourg, you don’t deserve to play in a major tournament.

With a degree of inevitability, the must-win question arrived.

“It depends on your grasp of mathematics,” Kenny responded.

“I think it’s important that we win the game, we want to win the game. A ‘must-win’? Is that an adjective?

“What does ‘must-win’ mean? We want to do well. The players’ attitude is exceptional. We played very well against Serbia and were disappointed to lose [3-2]. The players will give everything of themselves to win the game.”

There was a bit of an FAI communications malfunction during yesterday’s media briefing too. Hours earlier, the FAI announced Aaron Connolly was ruled out of the Luxembourg tie due to a foot injury, but Kenny wasn’t aware the Association had released the news until he stepped in to conduct his press conference.

“We wouldn’t release that normally that he was out,” said the manager, wearing a wry smile. “I didn’t realise until I came in here that it had been released. He has a foot injury and is struggling...”

Even though Kenny was reluctant to declare Connolly’s absence from tonight’s clash, it is safe to say the Brighton attacker won’t play any part.

Connolly, it appears, is the only Irish player ruled out of the squad, with strikers Shane Long, James Collins and Troy Parrott jockeying to take his spot in the starting line-up this evening.

The Republic of Ireland ended their seven-game goal drought against Serbia – and given the encouraging signs in Belgrade, there is every chance Kenny will be celebrating his first win against the ‘Red Lions’.

Asked if he felt a pressure to get a first win under his belt at the ninth attempt, the manager said: “It’s a fair question but if you were around the hotel or the training ground you wouldn’t feel that from the team – I know in other camps we’ve had COVID [issues] but we’ve had three tests now [which have been all negative] so that’s a big help.

“The players are in really good form. They’ve been buoyant around the place and in training; players are in really good spirits and anxious to do well. They seem quite relaxed. I really feel we’re in a much better place to where we were in November, for example. Coming into that last Bulgaria game there was a lot of tension [with COVID issues].

“The players played well against Serbia the other night, they’re feeling confident and we want to take that into the game against Luxembourg.”

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Football/Soccer