Clarity from Hampden Park as Scotland overwhelmed Ukraine to create a direct route to winning Group 1 of the Nations League B. Wednesday’s 3-0 victory in Glasgow shored up Steve Clarke’s position as manager, putting them top of the table but equally giving Stephen Kenny’s team a slight chance of securing their own ultimate aim.
Ireland can shoot up the rails and win the four-nation group by winning on Saturday at Hampden before taking care of Armenia on Tuesday at the Aviva stadium. Ten points and a superior head-to-head over the Scots would be enough to prevail, so long as Ukraine drop points in Yerevan and break even with Scotland in Kraków.
Clarke’s side will be promoted to Uefa’s top tier by drawing twice and denying Oleksandr Petrakov’s exiled squad from winning their last two matches.
Ireland can still be relegated to the third tier, League C, so the cost of success or failure in the coming four days is enormous for the FAI’s ability to service a €63.5 million debt. An immediate reward for promotion to League A is the guarantee of full houses at the Aviva stadium, as nations like Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands will visit Dublin.
All the permutations rank the June defeat in Armenia as the most damaging result of Kenny’s time in charge. There is also a Euros 2024 play-off spot on offer so, in summation, the future health of Irish football is on the line, once again.
All the players can do is stick to the process, as Josh Cullen explained before boarding the chartered flight to Glasgow.
“You have to believe in the philosophy of the team and the way the manager wants to play,” said Cullen. “It would be a waste of time if we came here and worked on stuff and then as soon as one mistake happened, we shied away from it and went to a different style.
“We have to be brave and play out from the back; and if mistakes happen, they happen, we have to react as a team but the more we do it, the more we improve, hopefully, the less mistakes will happen.”
That comment alone increases pressure on the three centre-halves Kenny names to start during this international window. Shane Duffy, despite his proven leadership and goal-scoring touch, is a liability with the ball at his feet near to goal, while it’s a strength of Dara O’Shea’s game.
Protecting back three
The need to control possession also suggests a three-man midfield with Cullen the anchor behind two from Jeff Hendrick, Jayson Molumby and Jason Knight in the 3-5-2 system Kenny adopted after moving away from two-men protecting the back three.
“They [Molumby and Knight] were brilliant in the two games [last summer],” said Cullen. “And credit to the manager and his coaching staff to make that little tactical tweak, and obviously it showed in the performances and in the results. However, the manager sees best fit to set us up for whatever game then we believe in it as players and we trust whatever decisions he makes.
“We respect Scotland. They have good players and are a good side. We’ve analysed then and shown them full respect in our preparation. We’ve analysed areas where we think we can hurt them and get at them during the game, and we have analysed their threats that obviously we’ll be trying to nullify.
“It comes down to us to put all of that into practice on the day and if we can do that, we’re confident we can go and get another result.”
The result will come via control of midfield, where Manchester United’s Scott McTominay silenced an army of doubters on Wednesday alongside Aston Villa’s John McGinn and Celtic captain Callum McGregor, as Clarke held the prodigal Billy Gilmour in reserve.
“It’s a step forward,” said the Scotland manager. “I think everyone forgets just how disappointed the players were in the summer. They wanted to show everybody what they are about. They want to qualify for the A group. We want to be good going forward.”
The hosts must plan without Everton right back Nathan Patterson, who was stretchered off against Ukraine with a knee injury.
“I think we owe them one now from what happened in the summer,” said Che Adams, a team-mate of Gavin Bazunu at Southampton. “We will be full of confidence now. We all know what we are capable of doing and we have shown that to everyone, especially Ireland.”