comment Finland match is a chance for Ireland manager to put a stamp on his team
Tonight in Helsinki, there will finally be a crowd to react to the work of Stephen Kenny’s Ireland.
He will be hoping for the surreal deathly silence that has accompanied his first three games to return at full-time as that would reflect a job well done.
Finland’s government have allowed fans to attend and meet the UEFA limit of 30pc stadium capacity so there will be somewhere in the region of 6,500 fans present in the renovated Olympic Stadium. They shared a post-match moment with their team following their victory over Bulgaria on Sunday.
Kenny’s team will now have feedback that goes beyond their own shouts and screams.
The TV audience back in Ireland will also have a fresh method for gauging the feel of a UEFA Nations League match; an alternative to the undignified presence of Mick McCarthy in the commentary box if he chooses to return for another ill-judged stint defensively describing the work of his replacement.
After a chaotic week that has provided a range of emotions, most of which were negative ones, Kenny could do with a victory to somehow finish things off on a high. Who knows; it might even be the last match of the year, depending on how seriously clubs voice opposition to the continent-wide Covid crisis during this international break.
“I don’t think it will be said,” said Kenny, seeking to be optimistic on that. “It’s difficult to be certain on it.”
He was answering questions sent to the Finnish FA by Irish media back in Dublin with no FAI communications staff present for the trip.
On the pitch, Kenny’s charges are starting to control their own message. It’s plain to see he has started the process of changing the personality of this Irish side.
In the space of three Nations League games, they have already attempted and completed more passes than Martin O’Neill’s side did across four games in the maiden renewal in 2018.
In terms of pass accuracy across the entire competition, only Spain have a higher percentage rate.
Granted, these are the type of stats that can draw mirth just as much as praise if Kenny’s side continue to fire blanks. Shane Duffy’s late goal in Bulgaria is all he has to show from four games in the hot-seat.
But those who do not see improvement in the overall level of his team’s displays either can’t see it or are stubbornly refusing to do so on the basis of a predetermined preference.
This match offers the potential to be a window to the future. The return of Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah and the promotion of Dara O’Shea and Jason Knight to join their ex U-21 colleague Jayson Molumby means that Kenny has five outfield players aged 21 or under that are all well on course to be a major part of the future.
A few years back, there would have been satisfaction with the emergence of one player with their profile. It’s conceivable they could all feature at some point.
O’Shea, a versatile West Brom defender comfortable with the ball at his feet, can operate across the back four and is a contender to partner Shane Duffy in the heart of the defence. Kenny hailed O’Shea’s rapid rate of improvement, while stressing he’s got a bit to go to get to John Egan’s level.
Provided Molumby has shaken off the late knock that troubled him on Sunday, he’s made a compelling case for inclusion in midfield with his energetic presence and efficient passing driving a team forward. A partnership with Conor Hourihane has promising left-right potential, although James McCarthy’s wellbeing may decide the final XI.
With Jack Byrne ruled out of the equation, Knight is an attacking midfield option off the bench, a hard working teenager who has mastered the art of breaking into the box effectively with Derby. The advanced midfielder needs to cover a lot of yardage in Kenny’s system.
However, the real intrigue is in forward areas, where a strong show from Connolly and Idah would perhaps enhance the feelings of what Ireland could have won in Slovakia if they were on the premises.
Connolly is the potential gamebreaker, and he would need to step up on his Aviva Stadium display against the Finns.
Finland were better than Ireland on that occasion, perhaps benefiting from superior match sharpness in certain areas, especially in midfield where Norwegian based Robert Taylor was influential. That said, Rangers’ holding operator Glen Kamara was able to patrol his territory without being unduly flustered.
Connolly will naturally be cutting inside off the left if he can receive the service to make the right runs, although there will be responsibility on Idah to work the home centre halves and create the space. There is likely a temptation to stick with Robbie Brady on the other side, for he can also wander into central areas and give Ireland bodies in that department.
The presence of a crowd might help to lift the tempo from last month. Ireland’s purpose is to give them nothing to shout about.