A dispiriting home defeat to Ukraine draining optimism from fans. A group of players looking exhausted after a long season. A manager looking to rebuild momentum after the body blow of a home defeat.
Ireland welcome Scotland to Dublin for Saturday’s game needing a win to get their Nations League campaign going, knowing that a loss could see their promotion hopes ended swiftly, and raise wider questions about the direction of travel.
While Scotland began their international camp with the play-off defeat to Ukraine, and then had a week’s wait for their next match, Ireland kicked off Group B1 with a shock 1-0 defeat to Armenia in Yerevan, then lost at home by the same scoreline to a much-changed Ukraine team that saw their own World Cup hopes extinguished by Wales days earlier.
Stephen Kenny’s side now face Scotland under pressure and with the manager insisting that his side aren’t now fighting relegation.
Ireland went into this break on an eight-match unbeaten run, amid a feeling of some optimism. But while the results show creditable draws against Portugal and Belgium, the bigger picture points to problems.
The four wins came against Azerbaijan (currently 129th in the world), Qatar (51st), Luxembourg (94th) and Lithuania (138th). The last home win in a competitive game was a victory against Gibraltar in June of 2019. Ireland have just two competitive wins since.
Manager rues missed opportunities
Kenny believes his side can count themselves unlucky, suggesting they could even have had a win and a draw from the opening matches.
“We’re disappointed in the last couple of games, but I think we are building something really progressive,” the manager said after the Ukraine defeat. “Statistically, we are not backing that up. I know that.
“We weren’t perfect, we were okay and played okay in spells. People have seen a lot of progression over the last 12 games.
“Obviously, we have introduced a huge number of players, who are getting better. We have missed a few players in this camp, but that is part of it. We can’t use that as an excuse.
“We have no points on the board after these two games, we should have more on the board but we don’t.”
Criticism of Kenny, a former Dunfermline Athletic manager, hasn’t reached fever pitch yet but, as with any team struggling to win games, there is no shortage of advice around for the manager.
Calls for change
Handed the job of revamping the squad and style after Martin O’Neill’s departure, Kenny has seen both his selections and his tactics questioned.
Though less direct than under his predecessor, some feel Ireland are light in the centre of the park and can’t get a grip of midfield to control game and build a cohesive attack. Kenny switched between a 3-5-2 and a 3-4-3 against Ukraine, with neither posing a severe threat to a side that had made ten changes and was mainly comprised of domestic-based players who hadn’t played in months.
The individuals within the system have been under the spotlight as well, and though the nation arguably doesn’t have the pool of talent it enjoyed in years gone by, there have been calls to make changes.
Will Keane, Michael Obafemi and Alan Browne are among those who might be eyeing a start at the Aviva this weekend.
This exceptional international break, with four games crammed into a fortnight at the end of a club season, means freshening up the starting XI is inevitable in any case, just as Steve Clarke will tweak his team from Wednesday.
That’s one reason Scotland might be taking a bit of a step into the unknown this weekend.
Kenny’s line-up may have changed and he may alter the team’s approach. Scotland may face a team that’s toiling and lost their last two games, or they may come up against a side that rarely loses by more than a goal and can point to fine margins costing them results.
Serbia, Portugal and Belgium have all flown out of Dublin having dropped points, even when they haven’t felt under threat for large parts of their games.
The unknowns are part of why Kenny remains upbeat and optimistic, but against a Scotland side that FIFA’s rankings and the Nations League groupings put at a similar level, it may be a match which provides decisive answers.
A hat-trick of losses would end real Nations League interest before the September games for Ireland; for Scotland, it would mean that they had taken a significant step ahead of their near neighbours, and put the FAI under sever scrutiny.