Preview of Ireland’s 2022 World Cup Qualifying Campaign

Robbie Brady – WikiCommons

David Prendeville

Next month sees the start of Ireland’s World Cup Qualifying campaign for Qatar in 2022. The Boys in Green are away to Serbia on the 24th of March, followed by a home tie against Luxembourg on the 27th. I have previously documented the turbulent journey Kenny has taken to get to this point. From the poor results, to coronavirus outbreaks, to the controversy surrounding a motivational video shown to the players before the friendly against England. Further to this, Damien Duff recently stood down from his role in the backroom staff, in mysterious circumstances. Leaving all that noise aside, however, here I take a look at the form of some of Ireland’s key players heading into the game and assess what sort of team Kenny may pick for these crucial games.
In goal, Kenny is likely to stick with tried and tested Darren Randolph. Liverpool’s Caomhin Kelleher has claimed a stake, though, by his impressive performances standing in for Alison at the end of last year. The fact that Kelleher is now Liverpool’s bona fide number two is an impressive achievement for the 22-year old. Jurgen Klopp seems to have a lot of faith in the youngster and has also talked up his ability on the ball. Kelleher played as an outfielder at youth level and retains a composure on the ball reminiscent of the new breed of ball-playing keepers such as his Liverpool team-mate Alison or Man City’s Ederson. It would be a bold move for Kenny to drop Randolph, who has been an excellent servant. But one wonders if it might not be time for new beginnings, where possible, across the pitch. A 22-year-old that’s involved in a squad as good as Liverpool’s certainly sounds like a starting option for Ireland. Randolph is also, if anything, playing less minutes than Kelleher as back-up to Lucasz Fabianski at West Ham.
The big call in defence will be the perennial problem of picking skipper Seamus Coleman or Spurs’ Matt Doherty. As I’ve argued many times in these articles, it shouldn’t be a problem at all. It should be one of Kenny’s main priorities to find a way to play both. If it’s a straight shoot out between the two for one position, Kenny has a very tough decision to make. Doherty’s form hasn’t been all that great since he got his big move to Spurs, being in and out of Jose Mourinho’s lineups. Coleman, meanwhile, recently returned from injury for Everton and has carried on the impressive form he showed at the start of the season.
Unless Kenny switches to a formation involving three centre-backs, you would expect Shane Duffy and John Egan will retain their places as the two starting centre-backs. Neither of them, however, are enjoying their football at the moment. Duffy has had a torrid time at Celtic, who look certain to lose the title to Rangers for the first time in over a decade. Egan hasn’t performed badly as an individual but his Sheffield United team sit rock bottom of the Premier League and are currently on course to finish the season with the lowest number of points ever. We’re not inundated with other options in this position. Ciaran Clark is a regular starter in Steve Bruce’s hopeless Newcastle side. He could do a job and would certainly be more comfortable on the ball than Duffy. If we were to look for more youthful options, Dara O’Shea has gained valuable experience playing regularly with West Brom, and may benefit from recently appointed manager Sam Allardyce’s renowned defensive coaching. Kevin Long of Burnley is another option. The left-back position looks to be Enda Stevens’ to lose. Doherty or O’Shea could also fill in here if necessary.
In central midfield, Conor Hourihane may benefit from a recent loan move from Aston Villa to Swansea City. The Swans sit second in the Championship table and are renowned for playing decent football. It has the makings of a good move, though, it is disheartening that as soon as Villa became anyway good they ditched Hourihane. Another likely starter in central midfield, Jeff Hendrick, is not having a good season at Newcastle. He’s been in and out of the team and has done little to inspire when he’s played. James McCarthy might be a better option. The veteran continues to do a solid job for Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace. Another option is Jayson Molumby, who Kenny seems to rate. The youngster was recently loaned out from Brighton to Preston in the Championship. Alan Browne is also somebody highly-rated by the manager, also playing with Preston. A wild-card choice here would be Southampton’s Will Smallbone but it’s likely that Kenny would want him to be playing more regularly to call him up for a senior cap.
On the flanks, one bit of good news recently has been that Robbie Brady has had an injury-free run back in the Burnley team. His re-emergence has also coincided with a decent spell of form of Sean Dyche’s side. He could make a huge difference to this Irish team if he can maintain his fitness. One player who impressed in the dire draw with Bulgaria in November was Derby winger Jason Knight. It would be good to see him integrated into the team more going forward. Let’s hope he can also learn something from his new manager at Derby, Wayne Rooney. The usual faces of Callum O’Dowda and James McClean should fill out the vacant squad positions in the wide areas.
One would expect Aaron Connolly to start these games if he’s fit, whether that be out wide or up-front. He’s had a stop-start season at Brighton and it would be good to see him put a run together. So far, Kenny has continually deployed him on the left wing, so I would expect more of the same for these games. That means that Kenny will probably persevere with Norwich’s Adam Idah as the lone man up-front, given David McGoldrick’s retirement. Shane Long would be another option here, but he doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of Kenny’s thoughts. Troy Parrott, meanwhile, has unfortunately failed to make much of an impression during his loan spell with Millwall so far.
Whoever Kenny picks, realistically, the team will have their work cut out to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar. But let’s hope we at least see the foundations starting to form of a promising team that Irish fans could have pride in again, following what’s been a sustained period of misery.