TOMORROW, we will see if Stephen Kenny and Ireland can finally claim that competitive win they have strived so hard to get for over a year now; when they face the might of Azerbaijan in the World Cup qualifier in Baku.
Hopefully, we can get one over them and get a win against the Caucasian nation that held us to a 1-1 draw, in the Aviva. However, our recent form offers little optimism, especially against the ‘weaker sides’ in our group.
With qualification to the World Cup effectively out of our reach and only a friendly against Qatar (who seem to have taken over from Oman as our annual match against a middle-eastern oil state) on Tuesday, it would seem like a good opportunity for Kenny to experiment with his squad and try out a few new faces where available.
In normal circumstances that would be assumed, but unfortunately, and understandably, Kenny is still under the gaze of a fanbase and media desperately hungry for a win and signs of progress. That limits Kenny's approach and the need for a victory is as strong, maybe even stronger than if we were still in the hunt for a qualification place. So Kenny will look to the players that have proven themselves to him in the previous qualifiers.
In that respect, there is a healthy contingent of Leesiders in the squad and indeed Kenny would do well if he selected a side backboned by Cork lads.
This squad includes five Cork men. They are Adam Idah, Conor Hourihane, John Egan, Chiedozie Ogbene, and goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher.
Of those five, Egan will definitely start with Idah most likely to join him from the beginning.
Gavin Bazunu's excellent form and game time for Portsmouth will keep Kelleher out from between the sticks, but as Kelleher's recent performance for Liverpool in the League Cup has shown Kenny would have no fears if he had to call on Caoimhín to step in.
Andrew Omobamidele has played his way into the full-back position after his baptism of fire debut against Ronaldo when he performed so well when coming in for the injured Dara O'Shea against Portugal.
On the other side, Seamus Coleman's injury allows Matt Doherty to step back into his preferred position and it should suit him well.
The midfield has probably been the Achilles heel of Stephen Kenny's sides. And while the likes of Doherty, Josh Cullen, Jayson Molumphy, Jeff Hendricks, Jamie McGrath, and James McClean have all battled as hard as they can, the pressure on them from superior sides and the need to link play and through balls to (usually) Adam Idah or Aaron Connolly has so far proved a task beyond them. The player to show the best aptitude for this job is the sixth Corkonian usually in the squad, Blackrock's Alan Browne. He proved the most incisive midfield conduit to the lads up front in the most recent games against Serbia and Azerbaijan. And don't forget he scored a cracker against Serbs in the away game.
Unfortunately, Kenny will be denied his services as he is out due to him picking up a second yellow card and a suspension in the last Serb game.
Luckily, another Cork lad in the guise of Bandon's Conor Hourihane has shown some of the same vision as Browne in connecting midfield with the forwards when he's come on. He is also showing some real quality assists and form for Sheffield United, especially from set-pieces. Notably, three weeks ago when he set up two goals for his Cork teammate John Egan to score against Hull.
The midfield will line up probably with Cullen, McGrath or Jeff Hendricks, hopefully, Hourihane, and maybe Hourihane's Sheffield team-mate Enda Stevens on the wing.
The former College Corinthians striker Adam Idah will likely lead the attack again. And while he's struggled to get in among the goals for his country, the job he's been asked to do by Kenny has not lent himself to too many shots on target. So far his job has seen him having to go back for the ball, holding it up to give the defence a breather and relieve the pressure on midfield. And he has done that with great effect and skill. Given proper service and space to attack the ball, I believe the goals will come. That's where we hope Hourihane's service will come into it.
I don't see much chance of former Cork City player Chiedozie Ogbene getting in for the Azerbaijan game. The remaining spot going to Connolly, Callum Robinson or maybe Troy Parrott.
But if all goes well for Ireland tomorrow night, who knows, maybe Ogbene might see action in the Qatar game on Tuesday as Kenny would finally be rid of the competitive win burden and free him up to experiment with the squad.