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World Cup qualifier preview: can Ireland keep Ronaldo quiet?

Narrowly beaten in the previous fixture against Portugal, can Stephen Kenny’s side right the wrongs of the Faro fixture and produce a result in an atmospheric Aviva? 

Ever since Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny labelled his players “heroic” after the previous Portugal fixture, Ireland haven’t lost, with wins against Azerbaijan and Qatar relieving the pressure on the former Dundalk boss.  

But Portugal is a different beast, and while Fernando Santos has a very talented squad all-round, there’s no doubting that Manchester United striker Cristiano Ronaldo is still the main man.  

Ronaldo’s brace against Ireland in September cemented him as the top all-time international goalscorer in men’s football, breaking Alli Daei’s previous record of 109 goals for Iran.  

But Ronaldo hasn’t settled and will try to add to the six goals he has already netted in the qualifiers, as Portugal will look to finish top of Group A ahead of Serbia. 

“Ronaldo at 36 is a different threat to when he was 26 but he still has the capacity to score goals”

STEPHEN KENNY, IRELAND FOOTBALL MANAGER

“We can’t be certain where he’ll play against us,” Kenny said. “He could operate narrow on the left where he can be difficult to pick up. He’s got a fast skillset, in that most wingers never have the capacity to head the ball from crosses the way he did to score two goals against us.” 

Kenny also commented on his squad’s improvement over the past year and how the fans are excited despite a tough period ahead of Thursday’s sold-out game.

The Aviva Stadium will host Thursday’s game between Ireland and Portugal. Photo: George Kelly

“People are interested. They know we’re not perfect. We’ve gone through a period of not scoring goals to scoring 14 in our last seven games. We’re creating a lot of chances in the games. Goals are spread throughout the team. 

“It’s brilliant work that all the Irish under-age coaches have been doing. It’s a reflection of what they’ve been doing. People are excited by that. 

“Fifteen players have come in and made their competitive international debut. It’s unprecedented in the history of football in Ireland to have that many players come through in one calendar year into the senior international team. 

“It’s a radical shift in terms of the style that we’ve introduced in relation to the number of players that we’ve brought through,” Kenny said. 

Stephen Kenny’s current Ireland contract is due to run out next summer, with the FAI board planning to sit down to review the situation after Sunday’s game away to Luxembourg. Several Irish players backed Kenny in Monday’s press conference

“For me, it’s a straightforward answer, yeah 100 percent, I want the manager to stay,” said Anderlecht midfielder Josh Cullen. 

“At the start, the results weren’t what we would have all wanted but I think it’s been clear to see it’s been a bit of a transitional period with the manager being new into the job for the last year or so. 

“I probably speak on behalf of all of the lads that we’re fully behind the manager and believe in what he’s trying to do,” Cullen said.  

His statement was backed up by Derby midfielder Jason Knight, who noted how Stephen Kenny “gave him a chance” in the Ireland squad.  

“He’s brought me up and given me eight senior caps so far, I’m grateful for that and I want to see him continue and hopefully me continue underneath him.” 

Ireland will be without injured Brighton forward Aaron Connolly for the Portugal and Luxembourg games, but in-form Callum Robinson is included, along with Gavin Bazunu and Andrew Omobamidele, who have both managed to nail down starting places.  

Captain Séamus Coleman returns for Ireland after the 33-year-old picked up a hamstring injury against Azerbaijan in September’s fixture. He’ll look to push Spurs full-back Matt Doherty for a starting position, most likely at right-wing-back. 

Midfielders Jayson Molumby and Alan Browne also return from suspension, while West Bromwich Albion’s Dara O’Shea is still recovering from a fractured ankle. 26-year-old winger Callum O’Dowda has also been called into the squad, replacing the injured James Collins. 

Ireland squad announcement.*Callum O’Dowda replaces the injured Jamie Collins*. Photo: FAI

It’s a strong squad for Portugal too, as full-back Diogo Dalot and attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes join Manchester United teammate Ronaldo in the squad, along with Manchester City duo João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva, and Liverpool’s Diogo Jota. 

Wolves players Jose Sá, Nelson Semedo, Rúben Neves and João Moutinho are also included, along with a recall for Lille midfielder Renato Sanches, who impressed in Euro 2021. 

The Republic of Ireland vs Portugal will be live on RTE Two this Thursday, with coverage beginning at 7 pm. 

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