A morale-boosting home win required as Irish fans return to Aviva Stadium
2022 World Cup Qualifying Group A: Republic of Ireland v Azerbaijan (today, Aviva Stadium, 5pm)
THE Republic of Ireland would rather be in much better shape than their World Cup qualification group status suggests ahead of the eagerly-awaited return Irish fans to the Aviva Stadium for this evening’s visit of Azerbaijan.
It is estimated 28,000 supporters will attend tonight’s clash – the first time the Green Army have been able to descend on Lansdowne Road since Mick McCarthy’s side drew 1-1 with Denmark in a Euro qualifier back in November 18 2019.
Stephen Kenny has yet to win a competitive game as Ireland manager after 10 attempts – a tenure that has been badly hampered by COVID-related absenteeism - but the Dubliner hopes they can break their duck against Azerbaijan who are also winless.
After three defeats in Group A, the prospect of reaching the World Cup play-offs seems ambitious for the Irish – but the manager isn’t downgrading the importance of their second of three qualifiers in the space of six days, and insists the squad was buoyed by their Portugal performance in Faro the other night despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s two late goals that sunk them.
“We are in a difficult position in terms of getting to the play-offs,” Kenny acknowledged via a zoom call yesterday.
“We know that. If we had won the other night, if we’d held out, it really did put us back into contention.
“The match [against Azerbaijan] on its own merits, we want to win it anyway and take it from there. I am not focusing on the play-offs at the minute. We need to go and try and win the game, it is important that we win at home.
“Listen, I think the fans will get behind the players because they have not been in the ground since the game against Denmark.
"They have great affinity with the players and they will want to help inspire the players to a home win. That would be ideal.
“We've had several really high level technical performances, particularly away from home, without quite winning. So we want to turn the performances into victories.”
West Bromwich Albion striker Callum Robinson, Preston North End midfielder Alan Browne and Celtic defender Liam Scales have hooked up with the Irish squad with defenders Dara O'Shea and Nathan Collins returning to their clubs due to injury.
Ireland were desperately unlucky in losing to group favourites Serbia (a) and Portugal (a) – but may come to rue the disastrous 1-0 home defeat by Luxembourg in March.
But Kenny, it seems, has the firm backing of the FAI as this campaign was probably always going to be focused on rebuilding a new, younger team ahead of the next Euros.
Playing in empty stadia, dealing with losing a total of 15 players to COVID-related issues at various times and suffering a penalty shoot-out loss in a Euro semi-final play-off have certainly tested the mettle of the former U21 manager and his staff.
“It hasn’t been straightforward, that’s for sure,” said Kenny, who made his senior managerial bow a year ago in a 1-1 Nations League draw with Bulgaria.
“I’m very privileged to be in the position and it’s not something I want to complain about. I’ll continue to work hard and to earn the right and I think there’s a great sense of team among the players.
“In June, it was the first time we’d come together. We got a win [against Andorra] and a draw [with Hungary] and a lot of players were able to forge relationships and understand each other a little bit more, and collectively enjoy their football a little bit more and being part of the Irish team, which wasn’t easy for them because it was a very stringent environment in the COVID era.
“That manifested itself in the performance the other night which was excellent, I thought, and you could see players emerging.”
A home win against Azerbaijan this evening act as a soothing balm to the disappointment of Faro before welcoming Serbia on Tuesday night.