Structure of Ireland’s group means a win is vital in Greek odyssey
One can only imagine the one liner that would roll off the tongue of Peter Drury if the Republic of Ireland’s own Troy Parrott could score the decisive goal in Athens on Friday night.
The hiccup in such a scenario is that our Troy is unlikely to be involved in proceedings in the Opap Arena having seemingly dropped down to fourth choice in the pecking order of forward options behind Evan Ferguson, Michael Obafemi and Adam Idah with a place for new recruit Mikey Johnston or Chiedoze Ogbene (when fit) alongside Ferguson more likely at present.
It’s just over a year to the day since the Tottenham Hotspur man goal and assisted against Scotland in a big UEFA Nations League game in Dublin and while he has 18 caps, he is still only 21 with time very much on his side as he faces into an uncertain future at Spurs under new manager Ange Postecoglu.
One year on from the last big result in Stephen Kenny’s reign, the structure of the Republic of Ireland’s EURO 2024 qualifying group means it’s time for another one.
Traditionally the blueprint for qualifying is to win your home games and not lose away from home to group rivals. However, the fact that Kenny’s charges were dealt a hammer blow of drawing the Netherlands and France as the top two seeds in this group has put an extra meaning on Friday’s Greek clash.
In isolation, a draw in Athens is a good result, an old fashioned 1-1. The outlook ahead of this game would be completely different if the second seeds in this group were Bosnia, Serbia, Czech Republic, Austria or Wales.
It’s not out of the question that the Boys in Green could still qualify from a position of one point from two games – four from three should they beat Gibraltar on Monday – but too often they have been out of the running early in campaigns and you feel a win here is vital to at least give Ireland a foothold in the group.
There is a feeling that both sides have to win to harbour any hopes of keeping pace with France and in particular the Dutch – who have an intoxicating yet hopeful bang of being no great shakes – while the loser will have no chance.
Gus Poyet’s Greeks are under less pressure having secured a playoff via the Nations League, Ireland are almost guaranteed a playoff spot of their own barring a serious bout of bad luck – which would be in tandem with Kenny’s reign.
Billed as a must win in some corners given the layout of the group, this would be the perfect time for Kenny to chalk off that big away win which he so dearly craves with successive games against the French and Dutch to come in September.
While performances against lesser nations have been poor, Ireland have shown an aptitude for stepping up against the bigger nations with home draws against Serbia and Portugal to boot.
Ireland have threatened that elusive statement away win throughout Kenny’s tenure, taking the lead against Serbia, Portugal, Ukraine and Scotland before losing two and drawing two.
That being said, given the current state of our football infrastructure, are we really entitled to be beating the lesser nations, to be taking big away scalps and even qualifying for tournaments? The days of enjoying major tournaments while papering over the cracks are long gone.
There is reason to be hopeful that the penny will finally drop for this Irish team on Friday in that aside from Armenia away last year, Ireland’s performances after a lengthy build up to a game have been quite good. There was the 2-2 draw at home to Belgium, the excellent performance at home to France despite the result in March while Ireland played well in Poland (against Ukraine) and in Hampden without getting the win.
Ireland have taken one step forward and one step back under Kenny with hangovers often scuppering their progress in the second game in a double window. The fact it is Gibraltar at home on Monday means that even if Ireland aren’t in inspiring form they should still ease by the minnows.
This is a long-haul journey of which Kenny has laid most of the groundwork with 15 players in the squad for this international window aged 24 and under with all five attacking options ranging from the age of 18-24.
It’s not inconceivable that all of Parrott, Idah, Obafemi and Ferguson could be around for EURO 2036 and already there is a great deal of experience in such a young squad.
Jason Knight (22) and Parrott (21) are level on 18 caps apiece while Idah (21) has 14 and could easily be in the mid-20s had he not been hampered by injuries over the last 12-18 months. Jayson Molumby (23) will earn his 20th cap on Friday while Nathan Collins (22) and Dara O’Shea (24) have 12 and 18 caps respectively.
Gavin Bazunu (21) looks likely to keep his place in between the sticks and earn his 15th cap ahead of Liverpool’s back up Caoimhin Kelleher (24) with 10 caps while Mark Travers (24) is unlikely to move past three caps this window.
Ireland need someone to rise from the Greek ruins on Friday to kickstart this qualifying adventure and give Stephen Kenny and this Irish team the momentum they deserve.