It is that most rare of occasions, an Ireland international week with a feeling of optimism leading into it. The recent victories over Azerbaijan and Qatar in the last international break have given Stephen Kenny some breathing space and the fact that Ireland finally recorded a competitive victory during his tenure has certainly eased the pressure on the manager.
It needs to be pointed out that neither Azerbaijan nor Qatar are international heavyweights. But Ireland have struggled to break down sides of that quality in the recent past – Just look back on the two games against Gibraltar in the previous qualifying campaign.
The club form of many of Ireland’s key players has continued to be more miss than hit. Since the last international window, the hero of those two games, Callum Robinson, has failed to score or complete 90 minutes for West Brom.
Matt Doherty still can’t get a Premier League start. Adam Idah is yet to score this season. Seamus Coleman’s season has been hugely disrupted due to injury. Jeff Hendrick can’t get into a struggling Newcastle side. All are likely to start on Thursday.
It highlights the paucity of options at Stephen Kenny’s disposal. But it points to another key change in Ireland’s team selection – consistency.
It is now possible to name eight or nine players who are guaranteed starters for Ireland. That has not been the case for some time. Gavin Bazunu, Matt Doherty, Shane Duffy, John Egan, Josh Cullen, Jeff Hendrick, Adam Idah, and Callum Robinson are all guaranteed starters.
While the other three places will be between Seamus Coleman, Andrew Omobamidele, James McClean, Chiedozie Ogbene, and Jamie McGrath.
Kenny has blooded a lot of young players since taking over the job. He has handed debuts to 14 players. He has been brave in picking young players and the fans have been, in the main, patient as a result.
Portugal come into this game still unsure of automatic qualification and with six of their players one yellow card away from suspension. That must be in the back of Fernando Santos’ mind as his side are due to play Serbia at home the following Sunday.
They lie one point behind Serbia with a game in hand. Only one of the two sides can qualify automatically. It would only be natural that their focus would largely be on that game. Bernardo Silva has also been ruled out through illness.
But it would be naïve to think Portugal will be unfocused. They still have so many brilliant attacking players any of whom can win a game with a moment of genius.
However, even when they won Euro 2016, they were not a team that thrilled the neutrals. Santos is fundamentally a conservative coach. He certainly has not been getting the most out of all the attacking talents at his disposal.
He sets the team up to be difficult to beat, first and foremost. Some Portugal fans have criticised his selections but having bagged a European Championships and a Nations League, the job is surely his for as long as he wants it.
Arguably Ireland’s best performance under Kenny was in the away game against Portugal. They were desperately unlucky to lose to two late Cristiano Ronaldo goals. The FAI are correct to wait until the end of this campaign before deciding on Kenny’s future.
A big defeat here and a defeat away to Luxembourg and Kenny will know that all those questions will start again about whether he is the correct man for the job. But one gets the sense that Ireland have finally turned the tide under Kenny.
This will be the first full house for an Ireland game under Kenny. The tickets sold out in very quick time and expect the atmosphere to be raucous.
While there would appear to be more of a 50/50 split in fan support of Kenny if one looks at social media, there is a huge passion for football in this country and the match-going public have shown they are really behind Kenny and the project he is attempting to build.
Kenny will be hoping to build on the optimism that is there coming into these games. A victory over Luxembourg and a competitive performance against Portugal should ensure he gets to continue his project.
Predicted Ireland line-up (3-4-2-1): Gavin Bazunu; Andrew Omobamidele, Shane Duffy, John Egan; Seamus Coleman, Josh Cullen, Jeff Hendrick, Matt Doherty; Jamie McGrath, Callum Robinson; Adam Idah.