Ireland eye rare win against Portugal side likely to be distracted by Euro 2024

John O’Shea lauds brilliant Manchester United team-mate Ronaldo because of superstar’s ‘outstanding character’

Portugal v Republic of Ireland,
Estádio Municipal de Aveiro, 7.45pm, Tuesday
Live on RTÉ 2

Before Cristiano Ronaldo fever takes hold, one last time, some subplots around this Euros warm-up. Portugal are in the same group as Georgia, whose coach Wily Sagnol is reportedly the FAI’s primary target to replace Stephen Kenny as the permanent Republic of Ireland manager.

John O’Shea remains as “interim” head coach with an announcement on Kenny’s replacement not due until after the European Championships, seemingly because the association is waiting for Sagnol.

As Irish football continues to hold its breath, Aveiro is in party mode with 30,000 expected to fill the Estádio Municipal de Aveiro which is built on the edge of town for Euro 2004 and used by a fourth-tier Portuguese club. This tiny city, with a population of 80,000, has been chosen as the farewell venue for Ronaldo and a 41-year-old Pepe.

O’Shea’s old Manchester United pal looks certain to start his last international on home soil, having amassed 128 goals in 206 caps for Seleção since 2003.

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“He’s an amazing footballer,” said O’Shea. “As a team-mate, he was brilliant because of the character he was, the relationship he had with everyone and it was superb to see him develop; the player that arrived and the player who left, you could see the difference, where he was wanting to go and continued to go, he was a very, very special player.”

O’Shea has promised an introduction to Tom Cannon, but the story here is Portugal with Kenny’s former Republic of Ireland coach Anthony Barry, now Roberto Martinez’s assistant, providing the tactical conundrums for current Irish coaches Paddy McCarthy and Glenn Whelan to counteract.

There is trouble in paradise, however, after a 2-1 defeat to Croatia last Saturday prompted Portugal’s understandably trigger-happy media to take aim.

“Was it bad? It was,” wrote Diogo Cardoso Oliveira in Público of an “uneven” system that saw Croatia repeatedly expose Manchester United full back Diogo Dalot and create “a lot of traffic” in midfield for Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes.

That the Premier League pair were outsmarted by Luka Modric has the Portuguese public concerned.

The lesson taken from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was that Ronaldo’s ageing limps and refusal to press defenders was stymieing the creativity of Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva. As soon as the captain was dropped, Portugal beat Switzerland 6-1 thanks to a Gonçalo Ramos hat-trick, only to lose 1-0 to Morocco in the quarter-final.

Martinez was appointed after that tournament, following a failed tenure overseeing Belgium’s golden generation, but any hint of phasing out Ronaldo was dismissed during Portugal’s perfect qualification run, winning all 10 matches last year against Slovakia, Luxembourg, Iceland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Lichtenstein, scoring 36 goals and conceding just two, to make them the strongest statistical performers in Europe.

The romance between Ronaldo and his country did not die in Qatar. He started nine of the 10 qualifiers, only missing one through suspension, scoring 10 more goals.

“I’ve no doubt whatever plans or rotations Portugal will have to use him, to maximise how far they get in the tournament, I think Ronaldo will be a key part of that definitely,” said O’Shea.

Kenny might have avoided a return to the domestic scene with St Pat’s if Ireland escaped Estadio Algarve on September 1st 2021 with a 1-0 victory. That meeting, on the edge of Faro, ended 2-1 to Portugal after Ronaldo soared above Irish defenders, not once but twice in injury time, having recovered from a brilliant Gavin Bazunu penalty save to equal and then surpass Ali Daei’s world record of 209 goals.

Three days later Ireland drew at home to Azerbaijan. Nine months on, they lost a routine Nations League tie in Armenia and at home to an understrength Ukraine, two results that ruined any hope of a play-off route to Germany.

Unlike that sticky Algarve night three years ago, there is no John Egan to plunder a goal at the front post. Perhaps Jake O’Brien can fill the void left by injuries to the Sheffield United skipper, Nathan Collins and Andrew Omobamidele.

Shane Duffy’s sluggish turn of pace during Ireland’s 2-1 defeat of Hungary last week suggests that the veteran defender is no longer the answer. Liam Scales, in contrast, has earned the right to start on the left of three centre halves, especially if Seámus Coleman is returned to right wing-back and Matt Doherty understandably drops to the bench.

Loyalty to Coleman lands in the Pepe bracket. For some athletes, class is permanent. Last week in Dublin, Coleman dragged Hungary skipper Dominik Szoboszlai into a mini-Merseyside derby. If not for Coleman’s unbridled passion and Troy Parrott’s 92-minute winner, a disappointing 29,424 attendance would have had a legitimate case to request a refund.

The hoopla around Ronaldo and Pepe makes this a hard game to call, especially considering the Portuguese will be minding themselves while striving to atone for Croatia. Also, Irish minds could wander to the nearby beaches and their imminent return to preseason at English Championship clubs. Come kick-off, it will be 23 degrees.

Portugal (possible): Costa (Porto); Cancelo (Barcelona), A Silva (Benfica), Dias (Manchester City), Dalot (Manchester Untied); Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Palhinha (Fulham), Vitinha (Paris Saint-Germain); Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Ronaldo (Al Nassr), Jota (Liverpool).

Ireland (possible): Kelleher (Liverpool); Coleman (Everton), O’Shea (Burnley), O’Brien (Olympique Lyons), Scales (Glasgow Celtic), Brady (Preston North End); Cullen (Burnley), Knight (Bristol City); Azaz (Middlesbrough), Szmodics (Blackburn Rovers); Idah (Norwich City).

Referee: Chris Kavanagh (England).

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