What will Stephen Kenny’s Ireland squad look like for daunting Euro qualifier against France?

Ferguson and Cullen will be key, but who else will be selected for Latvia friendly and huge test against Mbappé et al?

The race to be number one

Gavin Bazunu could do without Sunday’s trip to Old Trafford. The 21-year-old had Southampton manager Rubén Sellés publicly defending him following Junior Firpo’s winner for Leeds United before a sloppy clearance nearly gifted Leicester City a point last weekend.

“We trust Gavin,” said Sellés. “If you know Gavin, you know he’s a very strong character. I have no doubt about him, and I have no doubt about his personality to get over this.”

Bazunu is doing just fine in comparison with Caoimhín Kelleher’s hamstrung start to the season, which Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp blamed on a misdiagnosis in Ireland camp, something Stephen Kenny subsequently denied, leaving the Cork man stranded behind Alisson with only two cup starts since the World Cup.

Mark Travers is also confined to the Bournemouth bench as another Brazilian goalkeeper, Neto, has started every match since January 7th. With Max O’Leary playing regularly for Bristol City, Travers is not guaranteed inclusion in Kenny’s squad, to be named on Thursday ahead of the friendly against Latvia on March 22nd and Euro 2024 qualifier against France on March 27th.


A case for the defence

Nathan Collins’ mid-season struggles at Wolves appeared to end with a half-time introduction by manager Julen Lopetegui helping to secure a 1-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur. Elsewhere, John Egan could replace Séamus Coleman as the official Irish captain, Andrew Omobamidele is attracting interest from Premier League clubs and Dara O’Shea continues to excel at West Brom.

Coleman remains an option in the back three but Shane Duffy’s international career is on life support as the 31-year-old sits in cold storage at Fulham. Marco Silva excluded Duffy from the recent match-day squad that lost 3-2 to Brentford.

Kenny might struggle to explain Duffy’s selection to regular Championship starters Darragh Lenihan (Middlesbrough), Mark McGuinness (Cardiff City) and Jimmy Dunne (QPR). The Derry man’s goal threat leaves some credit in the Bank of Kenny.

Flying wing backs

Matt Doherty has sampled 11 minutes of La Liga since Spurs offloaded him to Atlético Madrid in January. “I suppose the rushed nature of it means, how much had the manager [Diego Simeone] seen of him?” Kenny wondered aloud recently. In contrast, Coleman (34) is an ever present for Everton due to Scottish international Nathan Patterson suffering successive injuries.

Doherty remains an option on the left but new recruit Mikey Johnston and Callum O’Dowda could make the James McClean (33) versus Robbie Brady (31) debate redundant. “Mikey has attributes that, to be honest, we probably don’t have in the squad,” said Kenny. “A winger of that ilk, a right footed left winger who can dribble and take people inside or outside and has a good final pass.”

McClean, who is four caps shy of 100, lies third in the Championship assist charts on seven despite Wigan’s abysmal campaign, whereas Brady is struggling for minutes at Preston. Factor in Ryan Manning’s form at Swansea City (three goals, six assists) and Brady is under real pressure.

Midfield rock

The Ireland team in 2023 will be built around Josh Cullen. He is the engine driving Vincent Kompany’s Burnley into the Premier League – the Clarets are 10 points clear of Egan’s Sheffield United. Cullen could reignite a partnership with Jeff Hendrick, who has settled at Reading under Paul Ince, unless one from Jayson Molumby, Will Smallbone, Conor Coventry, Joe Hodge, Alan Browne, Mark Sykes, Sammie Szmodics, Finn Azaz or Jason Knight demand selection.

Szmodics is flying at Blackburn Rovers and the 27-year-old just secured an Irish passport, while Smallbone’s creative streak at Stoke City might suit the Evan Ferguson plan.

Evan Almighty

Irish football’s first bona fide Premier League striker since Robbie Keane, Ferguson is certain to lead the line against France, so the focus narrows to Kenny’s starting XI. Chiedozie Ogbene is rounding into form at Rotherham while Michael Obafemi and Troy Parrott go from ace international partnership last summer to scrapping to play second fiddle.

On France

Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and Manchester United centre half Raphael Varane both retired after the World Cup final loss to Argentina but current Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema has nine goals in his last 12 starts for Real Madrid while with N’Golo Kanté, Ousmane Dembélé and Paul Pogba are inching back to fitness at Chelsea, Barcelona and Juventus respectively.

Perhaps, Didier Deschamps will make do with Adrien Rabiot and Real duo Aurélien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga in midfield but his recent comments about five players who started the World Cup final not “being up to the level” suggests a shake-up against the Netherlands on March 24th, three days before this glittering array of talent, led by Kylian Mbappé, come to Dublin.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent