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crunch time Baku against the wall for under pressure Ireland boss Stephen Kenny


Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

It was the venue for Chelsea versus Arsenal in the Europa League Final a few years ago. It also hosted a Euro 2020 quarter-final three months ago, but now far-off Baku looms large in the future of Irish football.

Stephen Kenny takes his Ireland squad, shorn of key players, to Baku for next Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan with his back to the wall.

Ireland won’t be going to Qatar next year, that much is already decided, but if things should go badly wrong for Kenny next weekend, it is hard to see where he is going as the Republic of Ireland boss.

Azerbaijan are ranked 117th in the world, but they gave Ireland their fill of it in Dublin last month. They will sense blood here, a rare win against a strong football nation, or at least what was a strong football nation.

Kenny sought to go down the diplomatic road when asked about Saturday’s opposition. He talked up their good points and good performances, but admitted, that, yes, it is a match his team, even without the injured Séamus Coleman and Dara O’Shea, ought to win.

“We’re not trying to build them up too much, definitely not,” he said. “I think you go away from home against Azerbaijan and it’s going to be a tough game, Serbia got a tough game out there.

“All the games are tough, bar there is a group of teams that are minnows and you should go and beat by three or four if you have the chance to do it. Azerbaijan are certainly not in that category, they haven’t conceded many goals and most of their players play in the Europa League and things like that.

“So no, we’re not trying to build them up, it’s a game we want to win and it’s a game we are very determined to win, and believe we can win. We want to go and do that, for sure.”

Kenny finds himself hoping a squad full of players with League One clubs in England can somehow earn him some time to continue what he believes is his job of building a new Ireland team.

“Yeah, there are seven of them in all,” the manager admits, “but some, like Gavin Bazunu (Manchester City) and Troy Parrott (Spurs) are actually registered with Premier League clubs who have loaned them out to get minutes on the pitch which is good for them and good for us.

“League One is a good breeding ground for players to get match experience, that is what I would say. I suppose the impact of Brexit is an unknown for us as of yet, we have young Irish players going to Inter Milan and Rennes of late, so we have to see what kind of impact that has. But a lot of those League One players, Bazunu and Parrott are certainly two, you would feel that they are on the upward trajectory in their careers.”

Former Cork City and Limerick player Chiedozie Ogbene has been in fine form of late in that division for Rotherham. Kenny spoke highly of him in the last international window and intimated that, but for an untimely injury, Ogbene would have seen some action against Portugal, Azerbaijan or Serbia.

With scoring goals a perennial problem, it would be no surprise to see the 24-year-old in action in Baku, or at least in the friendly against Qatar that follows a few days later.

Ogbene will be hoping to get a chance to make an impact on the manager in the way that Josh Cullen has done of late, establishing himself as a regular with the Boys in Green.

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“Against Serbia away Josh was really good and also Portugal away too,” said Kenny. “When I looked at him at Charlton [on loan from West Ham] a couple of times in seasons past his passing wasn’t progressive enough at times. He was sharp around the pitch but he was conservative in his passing and I feel his game has gone up another level since he’s gone to Anderlecht. He’s getting around the park really quickly.

“Josh is a quiet lad and he takes information on board, he’s intelligent. He’s a terrific professional and he has definitely expanded his range of passing when we’ve looked at his matches for Anderlecht. He’s been encouraged by the coaches there to look forward earlier and play forward through the lines. He’s got good defensive attributes but also now has a better range of passing than previously and that has helped him,

“It’s quite an athletic league that Belgian league, it’s not cagey. Teams have a go at each other and the games are quite stretched. He’s at a big club but they maybe don’t have the team that they had in the past.

“They had a situation where they dropped to 12th in the league this year and now they’re back to third. They’re trying to revitalise the club and they’re obviously a selling club as well, they sold a midfield player to Arsenal [Albert Sambi Lokonga], Josh’s midfield partner from last year, for £16 million. We’re delighted with Josh really and how well he’s done.”

Kenny’s job, starting in training this afternoon, is to prime his motley crew to secure a much-awaited first competitive win for the manager. Otherwise the writing will be on that wall that he has his back against, whether in Azeri Latin, Persian and Cyrillic script or just plain English.

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