In terms of overall significance, Ireland’s friendly with New Zealand on Thursday night falls into the decidedly meaningless category.
International friendlies are not known for their relevance at the best of times, but playing one four days before a crunch “win or bust” qualifier only exacerbates that sentiment.
What Thursday’s game does offer is the chance for certain fringe players in the Ireland squad to stake a last-minute claim for a starting berth against the Danes next Monday.
After a fairly tepid and uninspiring performance against Switzerland, there will be more than a few regular starters looking nervously over their shoulders at the chasing pack behind them and an eye-catching performance could propel one of the upstarts into that all-important starting XI on Monday night.
With that in mind, here are three players who could do with a stellar showing against the All Whites on Thursday.
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With a series of talismanic performances at Euro 2016, Brady looked like he was set to be Ireland’s next focal point for years to come. That hasn’t come to pass, however, as injury and a loss of form have caused Brady to slip down the pecking order on the international stage.
The Burnley wide man was omitted from Mick McCarthy’s last squad on account of playing just three Premier League minutes by October. He has racked up considerably more time now and will look to nail down a place in the starting XI for the crucial qualifier against Denmark.
Despite being blighted by injury, Brady is still Ireland’s joint top scorer in this current qualifying campaign with one goal, which says more about Ireland’s problems in front of goal than it does about him.
Having said that, Brady offers a quality on the left wing that James McClean simply does not. With a cultured left foot and a far superior technical ability, Brady would prove to be a more dangerous prospect than the Stoke City winger and Mick is surely looking for any excuse to start him on Monday night.
If Brady can get a solid hour under his belt, he has a great chance of ousting McClean and nailing down a starting place.
Glenn Whelan’s recent injury problems have cast something of a cloud over the central midfield position for the Boys in Green.
Despite being “retired” last year by Martin O’Neill, Whelan has proven himself to be a vital lynchpin in the McCarthy setup. Whatever his detractors have to say about him, Whelan has been pivotal to Ireland’s relative success in 2019.
However, a niggling injury and the fact that he is now almost 36 means that McCarthy is surely considering alternative options in midfield.
While many will clamour for Jack Byrne to replace Whelan, they are not exactly like for like and Cullen offers a more realistic alternative. Cullen was excellent in Ireland’s last friendly outing against Bulgaria and also excelled as captain of the under 21s in 2017/18.
A good performance at the base of midfield against New Zealand could force Cullen into the reckoning for Monday night’s crunch game.
It is unlikely that McCarthy will take a chance on two relatively unknown prospects on Monday, so if Byrne does make a strong claim for a starting jersey, the likelihood is that Cullen would miss out.
Like Cullen, Byrne impressed in September’s friendly against Bulgaria and looks more confident in possession than any Irish midfielders.
The abject performances of Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick in Geneva has surely left the door open for the likes of Byrne.
Fresh from winning the FAI Cup and being anointed PFAI Player of the Year, Byrne should be brimming with confidence at the moment and should be handed a full debut against New Zealand on Thursday.
If he continues to perform as he has been doing, it will be hard for McCarthy to ignore him on Monday.Shoot over to PaddyPower.com now for all the latest football odds
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