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Midfield is a minefield

Kenny no nearer to solving puzzle

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The Republic of Ireland’s Jayson Molumby in action against Nikolai Alho of Finland

The Republic of Ireland’s Jayson Molumby in action against Nikolai Alho of Finland

SPORTSFILE

The Republic of Ireland’s Jayson Molumby in action against Nikolai Alho of Finland

When Ireland racked up stress-free wins over Finland in the early 2000s, the midfield did a stint of national service and chipped in with a couple of goals which finished off the Finns.

A chance from midfield, never mind a goal, would have been welcomed with open arms against Finland by an empty Lansdowne Road on Stephen Kenny's home debut.

Finland, placed 24 places behind Ireland in the world rankings, played through Kenny's side with an ease which makes a mockery of those standings.

Two games in to Kenny's reign and it seems like the Ireland manager knows what the question is. He's just not sure if the men he asks can answer it.

Martin O'Neill, to the frustration of everyone who had to listen, regularly bemoaned the fact that he no longer had the services of a 28-year-old Robbie Keane. It's a moot point but what this Ireland side could so badly do with is a 28-year-old Roy Keane, a driving force in midfield.

For the second game in a row, the Irish midfield has been relatively comfortable in possession and, encouragingly, does not see possession of the ball as a curse, something to be dispatched as quickly as possible.

But it's missing that bit of nous, the ability to pick a lock in a quite average opposition. Frustration once again.

Jeff Hendrick, Conor Hourihane and James McCarthy tried but failed in Bulgaria; Harry Arter, Jayson Molumby and Robbie Brady were given the chance against Finland but, apart from some flurries and some good moments from Molumby, there was nothing to convince from the trio. Brady looked exhausted by the end.

For his first game in charge, Kenny did something which no Ireland manager had done in almost 50 years - handed out a debut to a player in the manager's own competitive debut.

For his second game, he carried out a savage piece of surgery, replacing his entire midfield.

Another blood transfusion is needed if the team are to get past Slovakia next month and it's quite possible that, after putting it up to the new (Molumby) and those called in from the cold (McCarthy, Arter), Kenny might well go back to the old stagers (James McClean, Glenn Whelan) to find a way past Slovakia.

Seven years ago, Giovanni Trapattoni was expressing his admiration for James McCarthy as a talent but also his doubt that McCarthy lacked what Trap called "personality", as in an ability to impose his will on a game.

Invisible

McCarthy was invisible for most of the game in Sofia and, a decade after his senior debut, is no closer to developing that "personality".

The worry is that, despite asking six different players to start in midfield, Kenny is no closer to having his ideal midfield formation for that meeting with Slovakia next month.

Let's be clear: Slovakia are not a top-class international side, evidenced by a poor home defeat to a crisis-ridden Czech Republic side last week. And if they lose to Israel tonight, there will be calls for a new manager to be in place for the visit of Ireland.

But Bulgaria and Finland are also average - five of the starting XI for the Finns last night play for pretty dull Scandinavian clubs, while their goalscorer is only a squad player with the fourth-worst team in Germany.

And if Finland was an audition for Ireland's midfielders, they fluffed their lines. Molumby was eager and enthusiastic but was also sloppy at times.

This will be part of his learning process, and he will be a big player for Ireland for the next decade, but his debut was more frustration than fortitude.

To his credit, he kept trying. The Waterford native had a shot on 82 minutes, a rare foray forward for a tired Ireland side at that stage after a long spell of Finnish pressure.

He looked frustrated time and again at how the day was panning out for him. The man from Cappoquin was eager and willing and his ability is not in doubt but he was not helped by a pallid display from Arter beside him.

Kenny showed, with his recall for Arter, that he was willing to give a second chance to those who had been cast aside.

The easy, and populist, way to go for the new manager would be to just pick a crop of Kenny's kids. But Kenny saw it as a challenge to wrestle more out of under-achievers like Arter, McCarthy, Brady and Hendrick.

Arter played just once under McCarthy and while injury accounted for some of his absences, sources within the camp believe that McCarthy made his mind up on Arter's commitment and attitude when he opted out of an 11 v 11 game at one Ireland training camp, muttering about an injury which did not stop him from playing for his club days later.

There would be few tears shed if Arter did not wear green again. He was opposed by players who are not quite Premier League class - the Finnish central midfielders play for clubs in Scotland, Norway and Greece - but it was the Premier League veteran Ater who looked second-division material.

When Kenny took over from McCarthy he knew what areas were of concern. The goalkeeper and defence were not things to worry about, an embarrassment of riches at full back where he could leave Seamus Coleman on the bench.

With a batch of young and old strikers up front, the striking positions should come come good in time.

Molumby will undoubtedly blossom, but as long as players like Arter and Hourihane flatter to deceive, midfield will be as much of a mess and a puzzle as the day that Martin O'Neill left the post.