Republic of Ireland vs Portugal, 19:45 – The Aviva Stadium
There is a special frustration that comes with the latter stages of unsuccessful qualifying campaigns. Every win or decent performance is dimmed by the unavoidable reality that the three points or last-minute winner ultimately count for very little. At times it can almost feel like a waste: ‘Ireland only beat a top team like Portugal once every ten years, may as well save it for a campaign that matters.’
Of course, this isn’t true in practice. Stephen Kenny’s side will be especially motivated to get a result against the Portuguese. If for no other reason than the way in which the result slipped through Ireland’s hands when the sides met in September.
But there seems to be more to it than that. Thursday night’s clash will see the first full capacity crowd at The Aviva Stadium since 2019, and the last competitive outing in Dublin for this Irish team until next June. Although a final tie with Luxembourg awaits on Sunday, the Portugal game feels like the symbolic end to an overall disappointing campaign which strangely seems to be ending with an excitement and sense of optimism not prsent in the international setup for many years.
From an Irish perspective, the unavoidable reality that the game counts for very little, comes from the unavoidable fact that Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for Qatar were gone by March 27, 2021, only three days after the campaign began in Belgrade. However, this Ireland side appears to possibly be going somewhere where previous Irish sides (including those which qualified for Euro 2012 and 2016) were not.
Kenny’s 26-man squad for this international break features only three players older than 30, a testament to his determination to stick with youth which has seen the emergence of new stars such as Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omabamidele and Adam Idah in the second-half of the campaign. His team are also playing with an attitude of positivity and belief that wasn’t allowed by most of his predecessors.
Ireland were minutes away from a win against Portugal two months ago in the Algarve. But had that win materialised, it would have been a far different victory than that against the Germans in 2015. In September Ireland were actually in a game against the Portuguese. It wasn’t a hit-and-hope goal that John Egan scored, nor was it the away side’s only chance of the night.
However, inexperience cost Kenny’s men in the end. Late mistakes were made which may not have happened under the old guard. There is a give and a take with this project, and in September the former proved more decisive than the latter.
While Ireland may need to look to psychological and poetic motivations to get a result, Portugal’s desire to win is far more scientific. Fernando Santos’ side sit one point behind Serbia in Group A of these World Cup qualifiers but have played a game less than their Balkan counterparts.
Regardless of the result on Thursday, who progresses to Qatar and who must navigate the play-offs will be decided on Sunday when Portugal and Serbia meet in Lisbon. But Portugal’s result in Dublin will determine whether a win or just a draw will be sufficient in their final match.
Both managers have as close to a full squad to select from as they’re ever likely to have. Captain Seamus Coleman returns to action after missing last month’s games against Azerbaijan and Qatar, while Callum O’Dowda has been recalled replacing the injured James Collins.
The superstars of Portugal such as Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota, Joao Cancelo, Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva will all be available for the game, and Renato Sanches has also been recalled to the squad after a recent absence.
But of course, it will be the man wearing number seven for Portugal who has to take at least partial responsibility for the immediate sell-out of this fixture.
For many Irish fans, this might be their first, and even last, chance to see Cristiano Ronaldo in the flesh. One of the greats of this generation turns 37 in the New Year and is unlikely to ever play on this island again before his ever-approaching retirement.
Curiously, his only previous appearance on these shores came in 2009 in Tallaght. The global footballing icon played for full strength Real Madrid side versus Shamrock Rovers in what has to be considered one of the strangest fixtures ever organised in modern times.
On paper, that game too, counted very little for Shamrock Rovers. But try telling that to the eleven men who lined out for the Dublin outfit that night. Even more apt perhaps, try telling that to the eleven men who will line out in green on Thursday evening.