Republic of Ireland v Bulgaria: Must-win game for Kenny's hosts

There have been reasons to excuse Ireland's results so far under Stephen Kenny but the manager needs a win against Bulgaria on Wednesday, writes Daniel McDonnell...

Republic of Ireland v Bulgaria
Wednesday November 18, 19.45
Live On Sky Sports

Ireland must end rough year on high

At the start of this November international break, it was clear to observers of the Ireland football team that Stephen Kenny needed to finish it with a win.

A Wembley friendly with England was always going to be challenging and the only way it would have left a strong legacy was with a shock success.

The derby with Wales was always going to be a keenly contested affair capable of swinging either way and so it proved.

But Wednesday's home game against Bulgaria stood out on the calendar as the ideal opportunity for Kenny to register a victory.

Bulgaria are an average side, a shadow of the teams of the 1990s and early-2000s. Ireland fans know that because they brushed them aside in a friendly under Mick McCarthy last year, although both managers fielded experimental line-ups.

However, in September the teams drew 1-1 in Sofia, even though the Bulgarians hadn't made a dramatic improvement. They actually operated a low defensive block, seeking to break down Ireland on the counter-attack and the hosts were seconds from victory until Shane Duffy popped up with an equaliser.

Ireland must make a statement on Wednesday

Throughout this UEFA Nations League campaign, Bulgaria have remained a stubborn opponent but they are no great shakes. An Irish team playing at home has to view this match as an opportunity to make a statement.

It's almost like a test case study to see if a team has addressed creativity problems. By the third match of a gathering, Kenny's team will have spent enough time together in camp to build expectations about what they are capable of doing against a quite limited opponent. At this stage of their evolution, they need to be good enough to win these type of matches.

The new manager has had rough luck with a Euro playoff penalty shootout defeat in Slovakia, unwelcome Covid-19 dramas and injuries at terrible times. His early months in the job have been a challenging time and the problems have continued in the past week or so.

There has generally been a patient response from the public and pundits but that can turn quickly and the last game of the year can leave a stench if it doesn't go to plan.

In other words, it's a big game for him.

Ireland must end rough year on high

Matt Doherty is out of this game after testing positive for Covid-19 in the aftermath of the Wales game, with James McClean struck out for the same reason.

-FPL Defenders Doherty.jpg

Ireland's goal drought stretching back to Duffy's effort in Sofia means there will be plenty of punters willing to take the hosts on at odds-on. Duffy's endured a challenging period since then.

That is the only point that Bulgaria have taken from the competition and it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that this game revolves around whether Ireland can step up and find their goalscoring touch.

Ultimately, the key for Ireland is to operate at a high tempo, move the ball quickly and pull a sturdy opponent out of shape. The creative abilities of Robbie Brady will be key to that.

Don't be surprised if Shamrock Rovers playmaker Jack Byrne, who made an impressive cameo off the bench in last year's friendly, comes into this game at some stage too.

There may be questions around whether Byrne is the man to solve Ireland's problems but Kenny's team need somebody with his playing style to drop into the pocket and draw out opponents that sit deep. There's a strong case at this stage that it's worth rolling that dice if the locals are toiling.

Luton's James Collins is a physical presence who starred against the Bulgarians 12 months ago and he is another likely to be tasked with making an impression here.

The reticence about Ireland at the likely prices is understandable. But the Sportsbook 12/5 on Ireland to Win and Under 2.5 Goals is the stand-out proposition.

For a longer price play, try Brady at 12/1 in the First or Last Goalscorer market. Ronan Curtis might offer some value there too at 15/2 in the latter market given that he tends to be sprung from the bench.

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