Build on Portugal performance – Ireland talking points ahead of Azerbaijan game

The Republic of Ireland head into their World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan on Saturday buoyed by their performance in a desperately unfortunate defeat by Portugal

Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-ditch double not only denied Ireland victory in Faro but left them without a point from their opening three Group A games despite a battling display at the Estadio Algarve, and the Azeris find themselves in much the same situation.

Here, the PA news agency examines some of the talking points surrounding the game.

Green shoots for Kenny

Stephen Kenny had his doubters even before he replaced Mick McCarthy at the helm and a return of just one win from his first 13 games as he attempted to change Ireland’s style of play did little to spike their guns. He is yet to win a competitive match as manager, but the performance in Portugal suggested there is something to build upon despite the result, and that may buy him further time in which to implement his blueprint.

Basement boys

That said, Kenny knows only too well that football is a results-based business and any lingering hopes of securing a play-off berth would realistically be over if his side lost to Azerbaijan. Like the Republic, the Azeris remain pointless having gone down away to Portugal and Luxembourg and at home to Serbia, but also like Saturday’s opponents, by a single goal on each occasion. At least one of the two sides must break its duck at the Aviva Stadium, where a draw would not really be enough for either.

Gavin a ball

Gavin Bazunu was a relative unknown when he was handed his senior international in the shock 1-0 defeat by Luxembourg in Dublin in March. A little more than five months on, the 19-year-old has been thrust into world football’s limelight after saving Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty to delay his coronation as international football’s leading goalscorer. Bazunu still has much to learn, but Kenny’s faith in his precocious talent looks to be well-founded.

Men in the middle

Among the most impressive individual performances in Portugal were those turned in by midfielders Josh Cullen and Jamie McGrath. Cullen, who is currently plying his trade in Belgium under the watchful eye of Anderlecht boss Vincent Kompany, and St Mirren’s McGrath, the subject of deadline-day interest from Hibernian, caught the eye as they both helped to protect the men behind them and feed attackers Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly to stake their claims for further recognition.

Time to strike

Norwich frontman Idah, still only 20, produced perhaps his most convincing performance yet for Ireland in Faro to give his side an out-ball and stretch the home defence, while 21-year-old Connolly’s pace and invention were an increasing threat as the game wore on. However, both are yet to score a first senior international goal and that will have to change sooner rather than later if they are to remain the men in possession.

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