Don't look now, but the beginning of Ireland's 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign is only six weeks away. Stephen Kenny's side will travel to take on Serbia in their opening game of the group on March 24th, with the visit of Luxembourg following three days later.
While we are less than a year into the Kenny era, this already feels like a potentially decisive campaign. The Ireland manager has yet to win a game during his time in charge, scoring only one goals in eight outings.
There have been a number or extenuating circumstances to those results, and while some of the criticism levelled towards him has been completely unjustified, it is clear that we will need to see a major improvement in form over the course of 2021.
This will be a challenging group, with Portugal, Serbia, Azerbaijan, and Luxembourg all included. Despite this, you would imagine a second place finish could be achievable if Ireland hit top form.
With the Serbia game only a matter of weeks away, we can now begin to speculate on what team Stephen Kenny may select in Belgrade. A quick look around at the pool of players currently available to him would suggest that the centre back position is a huge question mark.
That may seem like a strange comment, especially when you consider that Ireland's defensive record was in 2020 was decent despite the poor results. However, it looks far from certain who will be first choice in that position come March.
John Egan and Shane Duffy were the preferred pair last year, although Egan missed a number of games due to injury and coronavirus related issues. On the other hand, Duffy has started every game of the Kenny era thus far.
He displayed some mixed form during this period. The Derry man was excellent at times defensively, but it was also clear that he often struggled when asked to play more of a ball playing role.
Since then, Duffy's form has dropped off a cliff. He has found himself out of the Celtic team for large periods and has hardly looked at his best in the times has played. He looks like a shadow of the player he was only a couple of years ago.
Shane Duffy FORTY bags a week😭 pic.twitter.com/rxMN1WUIb7
— Darren Keenan (@Keenanyct) January 30, 2021
While he has never let Ireland down, it could be a major risk to start him in Serbia considering his recent form.
Egan has a few question marks of his own, although he has not had a bad season on personal level despite Sheffield United's abysmal campaign up to this point. He will likely still be in the team, but there is no guarantee that his partnership with Duffy will continue.
What other options are available? There are quite a few, but the most obvious one comes in the form of Dara O'Shea.
West Brom have struggled on their return to the Premier League, but the Dubliner has excelled during his debut campaign in the top flight. He has played right across the back four, displaying a type of confidence that is rarely found in such a young defender.
Many thought he would find himself out of the team after the appointment of Sam Allardyce, but he continues to play every game. It is rare for Allardyce to put this sort of trust in a relatively inexperienced player, telling you all you need to know about O'Shea's ability.
O'Shea would also seem to be a better fit in a Stephen Kenny team, with the Ireland manager requiring his defenders to be proficient in possession and have the ability to step into midfield. The 21-year fits that criteria, and while he may not possess the defensive abilities of Duffy at his best, their form has been worlds apart over the last six months or so.
Ciaran Clark has also come back into the picture after his Newcastle resurgence. Originally out of favour under Steve Bruce and struggling with injuries, he has now started in nine of their last 12 Premier League fixtures.
Few Irish players have seen more playing time in the division this season. Newcastle's form has been poor as of late, but Clark has done okay. He also offers more experience than O'Shea, although Kenny has shown this will not be the deciding factor in his team selections.
There are also a couple of options in the Championship. Nathan Collins has continued to make strides in his development, appearing in 20 of Stoke City's league games this season. His form has even attracted interest from a number of Premier League clubs.
Collins has yet to make his senior international debut, meaning it would be a massive call in throw him in at the deep end in Serbia. However, he has shown during his young career that he is not phased by such challenges. He has already captained the Stoke first team on a number of occasions.
Darragh Lenihan has been in and around Ireland squads since the Martin O'Neill era, but has been hit with injuries on a couple of occasions when it looked he would add to his tally of two caps.
He has continued to put in solid performances for Blackburn Rovers and is certainly an option for the squad, although teammate Derrick Williams is currently sidelined with injury.
The two other options of Kevin Long and Jimmy Dunne have both found themselves short of game time at Burnley, meaning you would imagine they are a bit further down the pecking order for the Mach window.
All of this lead to the question, who will start that game in Serbia? If all options are fit and available, something that is certainly no guarantee this far out, we could see an interesting selection.
John Egan looks a certainty to start. If you were pushed for an answer right now, you imagine it would be difficult to look beyond Dara O'Shea for that other position.
Leaving Shane Duffy out of the side would be a big statement, especially if captain Seamus Coleman is also not selected at right back. Much can change in six weeks, but picking Duffy in this form seems like a bigger risk than selecting the inexperienced O'Shea.
Perhaps it would be the type of thing needed to spark this Ireland team into life.