Stephen Kenny: ‘The Ukrainian players have been great ambassadors for their country amidst the chaos’

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After Saturday’s dismal defeat to Armenia, Ireland have a chance to get their Nations League campaign back on track tomorrow evening when they host Ukraine.

tephen Kenny’s side were unbeaten in their previous eight before arriving in Yerevan but despite holding the lion’s share of possession, they lacked composure in front of goal and struggled to break down Armenia’s low block.

“We’re disappointed to lose in Armenia, there’s no getting away from that,” said Kenny, speaking at a press conference this afternoon.

“When you lose to Armenia you have to accept criticism. It was one that we wanted to win. I don’t think it was a game we deserved to lose, we hardly conceded any chances. We know we can play a lot better overall. We had enough chances to win the game itself. We should not have lost.

“It’s one we’ve left behind. We’ve just got to put it behind us and go into the Ukraine game with a strong mentality and try to get a win.”

The first game of the home double-header is also an opportunity to bring two worrying records to an end.

Ireland have not won at home competitively since a 2-0 win against Gibraltar, ranked 203rd in the world, in June 2019. A win tomorrow would also be Ireland’s first victory in the Nations League, with five draws and six losses to date.

They will have to do it without their captain and number one goalkeeper, however. Seamus Coleman is out with a groin issue while Gavin Bazunu has left the camp with a minor rib fracture.

Caoimhín Kelleher made his first competitive start on Saturday and is set to feature for the rest of the window. Chiedozie Ogbene or Cyrus Christie are two who could replace Coleman at right-wing-back. Otherwise, Kenny added that he wouldn’t be making wholesale changes.

“There’s no guarantee he (Coleman) will feature in the other two games,” Kenny admitted. “We’ll have to see how it settles and make a decision on that later in the week. Hopefully, he’ll be involved but it’s too early to say.”

Ukraine come into the Nations League clash following a heart-breaking World Cup play-off defeat to Wales. Tomorrow’s game will be Ukraine’s third since the beginning of the war. Kenny admitted that it will be an unusual game amid the circumstances and praised Oleksandr Petrakov’s side for continuing to represent their county.

“It is a very unusual game,” said Kenny.

“The Ukrainian players, coaches, and all the staff have been great ambassadors for their country amidst the chaos of their lives and the thousands who have lost their lives. By continuing to play, they are keeping it at the forefront of whatever country they’re playing, within the media. It keeps the discussion very much in the news.”

Back on the pitch, Kenny expects a different challenge to the one Armenia posed. Ukraine were unbeaten in their previous eleven before Sunday’s defeat in Cardiff but are expected to field a second-string side at the Aviva.

“They have made changes right throughout the (World Cup) campaign. They have rotated their midfield. The five substitutes they brought on the other day are very, very strong. They have a lot of depth and I think we’ve seen in both games, particularly Scotland that they have a lot of quality.”

Kenny was also asked about the possibility of U-21 star Will Smallbone being called up to the senior side. The Southampton midfielder hit a brace on Friday before picking up man-of-the-match. Smallbone hit the net again in yesterday’s win over Montenegro, with Jim Crawford’s team on track to qualify for a first-ever European Championships.

“I must say, he’s had a tough time with an unfortunate cruciate ligament injury and one or two other injuries,” Kenny said.

“I would love to see him get a run of games because he definitely was exceptional yesterday. It was great to see that. He will go and play in Italy next week for the U-21s but he definitely has a future with the senior international team if he continues in that vein of form.”

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