Serbia v Republic of Ireland: Patched up guests on the ropes

Stephen Kenny's reign as Ireland manager has hit one crisis after another and injuries have left him facing an uphill battle in Serbia writes Daniel McDonnell...


Ireland must overcome fresh issues

Stephen Kenny's Republic of Ireland need a result in Serbia on Wednesday to change the direction of his tenure.

It's all gone downhill for Kenny since Ireland missed a raft of chances before losing October's Euro 2020 playoff to Slovakia on penalties. They have been dogged with Covid and injury issues since then, and also lost coaches Damien Duff and Alan Kelly for off-the-field reasons. Chelsea coach Anthony Barry and Crystal Palace goalkeeping coach Dean Kiely have come in as (part-time) replacements.

There's no way of sugar coating the statistics; Ireland have failed to score in seven successive matches, drawing two and losing four after that shootout heartache against the Slovaks. But he hasn't been able to field anything close to his best team since that fixture.

What Kenny needed for this opening World Cup qualifier was a trouble free build-up. He's endured the exact opposite. Goalkeeper Darren Randolph is out and so is his intended replacement Caoimhin Kelleher, meaning that Bournemouth back-up Mark Travers steps up for his competitive debut.

Conor Hourihane, Callum O'Dowda and Kevin Long sustained weekend injuries which ensure they join John Egan, James McCarthy, Adam Idah, Harry Arter and Jack Byrne on a list of outfield absentees. James McClean and Aaron Connolly have travelled with various levels of doubt hanging over their participation.

Shane Duffy is present and correct but has been badly out of form at Celtic and hasn't played since February. It's difficult to count in-form Irish players on the fingers of one hand and very hard to nail down what side Kenny might pick. Ciaran Clark has been out of the Irish frame for a while but the Newcastle player will come straight into the frame. A solid centre half isn't exactly a gamechanger.

Kenny must choose between a contingent of out of form or out of favour strikers to end that goalscoring drought.

Serbia's new beginning

Serbian observers are guessing what their new boss Dragan Stojkovic may do but in a very different context. He has an abundance of options flying at club level and the challenge he faces is how to accommodate them. In recent years, Serbia have arguably underperformed, missing out on the Euros after a penalty defeat to Scotland following 120 scoreless minutes in Belgrade.

Form players include Fiorentina's Dušan Vlahović who has struck double figures in Serie A this term and Lazio's Sergej Milinković-Savić, an assist machine in Italy. Serbia can be inconsistent but the problems facing Stojkovic are preferable to what Kenny is dealing with.

Taking all of the above into consideration, it's no surprise that Serbia are the odds on favourites but their inconsistency is such that it's difficult to advertise steaming into back them.

It's worth remembering that while this is a game of significance under a new manager, it's still a closed doors clash at the start of the international break and the hosts actually have a greater number of players that have been active in recent months.

Therefore, it's by no means a given that this match will start at a high intensity and it's possible there could be more shadow boxing than punches thrown in the early minutes. Kenny wants his side to try and keep possession more so while they haven't been hurting teams, neither have they lumped the ball away and invited protracted spells of pressure.

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The list of full time results under this manager tells a tale. 1-1, 0-1, 0-0, 0-0, 0-1, 0-3, 0-1, 0-0. A beating at the hands of England was the exception to the pattern; in a competitive match there's no way that Ireland will be as open.

Serbia can ignite on a good day - they thrashed Russia 5-0 in the Nations League in November - but there was a bit of Euros elimination frustration in the air and Russia did experiment a bit. This should be a far more cagey affair by comparison and the 2.78 about Under 1.5 Goals is the most appealing bet.

The interval game

What about the bigger picture outcome? From an Irish perspective, the heart would be ruling the head to construct an argument where they come away with the result they want. But there is a niggling feeling that the big away qualifiers tends to draw an unexpected response of this crop and, with skipper, Seamus Coleman back in the side there's every chance they will regroup and be competitive

In truth, they have started most games under Kenny reasonably well. Frustration has kicked in later on when they have lost their way. From a trading perspective, the 1.71 about a home win is likely to go bigger in running and those who expect Stojkovic to collect the three points are advised to sit and wait.

Taking all the factors into consideration, the 2.02 about the game being level at the interval appeals.

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