Ireland talk the talk but scale of the challenge in Portugal is daunting

Kenny remains stoically positive but limited Republic XI facing a hot night in the Algarve

Portugal v Republic of Ireland, Estádio Algarve 7.45pm – Live RTÉ Two and Sky Sports

Expectations are at historically low levels that the Republic of Ireland can escape Faro with anything other than a resounding loss and zero points from three World Cup qualifiers.

And yet, no fear has crept into media dispatches about how they might repel a front four of Cristiano Ronaldo – chasing a world record 110th international goal – Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and Bruno Fernandes as Irish players, from 20-year-old striker Adam Idah to captain Seamus Coleman, have spoken about a desire to hold their own against this ridiculously gifted Portuguese side.

"We have to carry an attacking threat and we can't afford to defend for 90 minutes, it's not workable," stated Ireland manager Stephen Kenny, in an almost convincing tone that his team could dictate the terms of engagement. "We're set up to do that."


How Ireland actually set up should be fascinating as Kenny, after all these years as a League of Ireland manager, and particularly some famous European wins with Dundalk, finally gets to pit his wits against the best players Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool can afford.

The threat of conceding a spectacular goal will be constant and could come from almost any area of the pitch. Ronaldo will crave and hunt a tap in.

“I’m sure with the Portuguese quality they’ll force us to defend at times, and we acknowledge that but it’s not our intention to be set up in a defensive way.”

In that sense, Ireland's traditional strength – herculean levels of defending – ha been boosted by Shane Duffy rediscovered his mojo at Brighton. He recently scored one of those bullet headers against Watford and if Ireland are going to steal a goal at Estádio Algarve, where only 7,865 fans are allowed to attend, odds on it will be from a corner.

"I'm not one bit surprised," said Coleman of Duffy's dramatic recovery. "He's made of different stuff. Similar to myself, he's gone through a tough schooling with David Moyes.

"No one understood the hard times he had last year, including the loss of his father. He's took the Celtic loan on the chin and come back fully focused. His attitude never dropped, never changed and I'm delighted for him. I think a lot of Irish fans are delighted by his start to the season at Brighton but the main thing is I'm not one bit surprised because he's made of different stuff."

Imagine the giant Derry man spoiling Ronaldo's coronation. Imagine other ways that a shift like Richard Dunne's in Moscow or Paul McGrath in the Giants Stadium could be replicated and it comes down to Irish defenders like Dara O'Shea, who has excelled at West Brom this season, and Coleman and Sheffield United's John Egan dragging up career -best performances.

“That’s been a real plus for us that the defenders have been playing regularly and are in good form,” said Kenny, who appeared comfortable talking to reporters before a training session on the Estádio Algarve pitch last night in stifling, humid conditions.

"Seamus is in a rich vein for form and Everton are flying. Matt Doherty has not been a regular in the league but has played vital Europa League games, Ryan Manning is playing at Swansea and James McClean got his move to Wigan and played in three games last week."

Obvious choice

The 49-year-old Dubliner cannot name them all but McClean at left wing back seems an obvious choice as the other Derry man’s desire and competitiveness is tailor-made for this stage.

It must not be a night for the faint-hearted or the naturally gifted footballer. For Ireland to snatch a point or for the unthinkable to happen, McClean and Coleman will need to be constant menaces up and down the flanks.

It is in midfield that all rational hope of a surprise disappears. Josh Cullen is playing regularly for Anderlecht in the Belgium league but the other central midfield options – Harry Arter, Conor Hourihane and Jayson Molumby – needed the transfer window to secure loan moves away from clubs that consistently refused to pick them. Much was once expected of Jeff Hendrick.

Up front and in goal respectively the future is Troy Parrott and Gavin Bazunu but these teenagers are also out on loan to League One teams, where they do look well above the standard.

Kenny always needed to mould Ireland into a collective that plays above the players’ club status to have any chance of qualifying for a major tournament. Getting to the Qatar World Cup next year seems close to an impossible task on the eve of a game that will be dominated by what Ronaldo does – as is almost always the case when the famous 36-year-old laces his boots.

This result also matters to the job security of Portugal manager Fernando Santos following the disappointment of losing to Belgium at the Euros. Portugal also wants to avoid a dog fight with Serbia to top Group A. Both countries have seven points from three games with second place being tossed into a semi-final then final play-off for the remaining three European qualification spots.

The question is whether Ireland, after losing 1-0 to Luxembourg in their last competitive match, can force their way back into this conversation.

“Listen,” said Coleman to an attentive audience. “We were massively disappointed in March, there is no getting away from that. But, listen, March is done now, I wish we could change it but we can’t.”

What they actually can change in the coming days, with Azerbaijan and Serbia coming to Dublin, remains to be seen.

Portugal (possible): Patricio; Cancelo, Pepe, Dias, Guerreiro; Danilo; Fernandes, Moutinho; Silva, Ronaldo, Jota.

Ireland (possible): Bazunu; Coleman, Egan, Duffy, O'Shea, McClean; Hendrick, Cullen; Connolly, Idah, Parrott.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent