The Republic of Ireland have contested more European Championship qualification play-offs than any other country but even they have never faced a duel quite like Thursday’s showdown in Slovakia. If they win a tie postponed twice because of Covid-19, they will advance to a decider away to Northern Ireland or Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the potential prize would be a place at the rescheduled Euro 2020, where one of the host cities will be Dublin.
Mick McCarthy guided Ireland this far but the delays in staging the play-off cost him his chance to complete the campaign, the task now entrusted to Stephen Kenny, who has designs on doing it in a new way. He preaches an attacking, possession-based style that, he insists, Ireland can pull off. The manager knows that if his third match in charge does not yield the result he hopes, then he may face accusations of being too naive or idealistic. He is undaunted.
“One thing we want to carry is an attacking threat; that has to be our intent,” Kenny said. “Slovakia are a good, open team. Their games are quite open because they really go at you. But because of the nature of that they give you an opportunity. We’re not setting up to contain and hope we score through a set play or a break. We will play our own game. We have good players also and we must not underestimate ourselves.”
Kenny’s squad is close to full-strength, with the injured Séamus Coleman the only major absentee. Robbie Brady is available despite a fractured rib, and David McGoldrick is back to lead the attack. Coleman will be replaced by Tottenham’s Matt Doherty, who expects Ireland to perform much better than in Kenny’s first two matches, last month’s draw with Bulgaria and defeat by Finland.
“A lot of us came in with no training,” Doherty said. “The difference now is we’re all mentally tuned in and physically in the right place in terms of fitness and stamina. I’m pretty sure you’ll see a different performance … We look comfortable on the ball, we look like we want to play. The philosophy is already starting to get across in training and hopefully it’ll click in Slovakia.”
As if embodying the confidence with which Ireland aim to play, Doherty said he would relish the chance to take a penalty in any shootout. “I’ve been practising penalties for about a month now. If asked who wants to take one, my hand will be straight up.”