The UEFA NATIONS League: the eternal child of international football.
It continues to be derided by famous sports figures, with Kevin de Bruyne lining up with chief skeptic Jurgen Klopp in describing it as ‘unimportant’ and a collection of ‘glorified friendlies’.
Stephen Kenny and Seamus Coleman.
Credit: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Their view of competition is refracted through self-interest, and a quadruple header of games at the end of their brutal seasons is, admittedly, a tough sell. But competition means lower down the food chain the further you travel, and Stephen Kenny loaded it with importance for Ireland when he said last October his ambition was to win the band. That was before the draw, and pairings with Ukraine, Scotland and Armenia brought no revisionism on Kenny’s part.
It’s packed with incentives: Win the group and Ireland will be the second seed in the Euro 2024 qualifying draw later this year, while guaranteeing a backdoor Euros qualifier if the campaign goes wrong . It would also bring promotion to the next level, against opponents who would send the boxes ringing at the FAI.
Ireland have smeared the competition to date, with zero wins and two goals scored in ten games over two campaigns. Only Iceland, Northern Ireland, Andorra and San Marino have also failed to win a Nations League game so far, while of the 55 nations in contention, only San Marino have scored fewer goals than Ireland. The first campaign took place under the veil of Martin O’Neill’s acrimonious and parched end days, while the results of the second campaign were dampened by the preposterous circumstances of the pandemic.
“It is not at all fair to evaluate this campaign. Completely unfair,” Kenny said, citing his streak of bad luck.
Kenny is aiming for more pick consistency this time around, and most of his team is picking themselves now. Bazunu, Coleman, Duffy, Egan, Cullen, Hendrick, Robinson and Ogbene are all automatic starters, with left-back a toss between Enda Stevens and James McClean. Matt Doherty’s injury means Coleman will likely be pushed to right-back, opening up a spot in the back three for Nathan Collins. Given that it’s up to Ireland to attack, Troy Parrott is likely to be preferred to a midfielder like Alan Browne or Jason Knight further forward.
(Bazunu has been nursing a back problem but Kenny said he expects him to be available today. Caoimhín Kelleher will replace him if deemed unfit.)
Consistency in selection means giving up the element of surprise, and it will be interesting to see how Ireland not only handle being favorites but countering an opponent with a clearer prior plan of how he plays. But if Ireland are to fulfill their coach’s ambition, they must defeat the last seeds in the group.
There was a theme of double-bookings in Ireland’s rise to prominence: manager John Eustace linked up late with the team when he married on Tuesday, while the supposed suspension of Josh Cullen disappeared when it was discovered that Fifa had confused their two yellows in separate games against Luxembourg for two cards in the away game in November.
Heat was the other character of the week. Kick-off is at 5 p.m. local time, when temperatures are expected to reach 35 degrees. “We will know that we will have to adapt certain aspects of our game,” Kenny said. “We don’t want to make it too much of a contentious issue.”
The dispute weighs heavily in the air of Yerevan. The city has been rocked by street protests that have turned sour in recent weeks, in response to the opposition politician’s calls to overthrow Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Critics have accused him of conceding too much in peace talks with Azerbaijan after a ceasefire in the dispute over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This ceasefire agreement was guaranteed by Russia, which sent 2,000 peacekeepers to the region. The resulting national attitude towards Russia was summed up by the headline article on the Armenian State News Agency website on Wednesday: A happy birthday message to Pashinyan, sent by Vladimir Putin .
Thousands of Armenians gathered in Republic Square in the city center last night, with riot police gathered around the entrances to various government buildings, some of which were broken into during protests last month. They then marched through the streets of the city, blocked off from the sidewalks by lines of police.
The crowds at the Stade de la Republique tonight are likely to exceed attendance for the rally, however, with around 9,000 people expected at the 14,500-seat ground. Tickets are on sale outside for the equivalent of one euro, though Armenia isn’t exactly riding this game on a wave of optimism. Star player Henrikh Mkhitaryan retired in March, a month in which Armenia also managed to lose 9-0 to Norway.
“Don’t remind me,” said the Armenian coach when he was recalled yesterday.
It is Ireland’s first meeting with Armenia since Euro 2012 qualifying, when a 2-1 win for Ireland edged a winner-take-all clash in Dublin. The game lives in infamy in Armenia because of the red card shown to goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky in the first half. Hurrying out of his penalty area to block a Simon Cox shot, the keeper raised his hands but the ball bounced off his ribcage, which the referee confused. Armenia lodged a complaint with UEFA which went nowhere, and yesterday they gave the impression that they have been tweaking the grievance ever since. The first questions that the local press addressed to Kenny and Seamus Coleman were to ask them about their memories of this Henryesque scandal which marked the history of Armenian football.
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“We are very motivated for tomorrow’s game,” said Armenia captain Varazdat Haroyan. “All players and Armenians remember the game in 2011.”
The injustice is accentuated by the fact that the best Armenian team came closest to qualifying. They are no longer the same team today, 92nd in the world when they were once in the top 40. Mkhitaryan’s retirement removes their widely recognized name, but Kenny has verified the name of their strikers, Sargis Adamyan of the Club de Brugge and Tigran Barseghyan from Slovan. Bratislava, with young midfielder Eduard Spertsyan.
It is the first of four games in 11 days, a schedule which the Armenian manager called “barbaric”. It’s a grueling course, and it would be even more tiring if Ireland didn’t win and found themselves playing catch-up from the start.
But given the team’s progress since the end of the last Nations League campaign, it’s reasonable to expect Ireland’s cold embrace for this competition to melt away in the heat of Yerevan. .
Republic of Ireland (likely XI): Bazunu; Colman; Collins, Duffy, Egan; Stevens; Cullen, Hendrick; Parrott, Ogbene; Robinson
Armenia (likely XI): Yourchenko; Voskanyan, Haroyan, Hambardzumyan, Kama; Udo, Spertsyan, Bayramyan, Bishakhchyan; Adamyan, Barseghyan
ON TV: RTE Two; KO 2 p.m.