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How Ukraine-Croatia could be vital to Ireland's qualifying hopes and more talking points

Plus, Sean Maguire’s dream year continues.

Ireland's Shane Duffy celebrates last night's win over Moldova.
Ireland's Shane Duffy celebrates last night's win over Moldova.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. How Ukraine-Croatia could be vital to Ireland’s qualifying hopes

AS PLEASING AS Ireland’s convincing 2-0 win over Moldova was last night, the fact that results from elsewhere continue to go Martin O’Neill’s side’s way is arguably of equal significance.

Scotland’s win on Thursday night means their failure to beat Slovenia on Sunday would leave open a potential scenario whereby an Irish victory over Wales would be enough to earn the Boys in Green a spot in play-offs.

Austria’s last-minute winner against Serbia, meanwhile, leaves open an outside chance of Ireland topping Group D and qualifying automatically, albeit it would be dependent on the highly improbable outcome of Georgia winning away against the Serbs.

If the Scotland result does not work out, there are other permutations that could be of benefit to Martin O’Neill’s men.

Group H is one to keep a close eye on, as explained here, while some surprise results in Group I mean that if Ukraine’s match at home to Croatia ends in a draw, Ireland could potentially leapfrog the latter in the second-place table.

While there is bound to be plenty of drama yet to come, the qualification picture is starting to become clearer, and if results elsewhere continue to go their way, Ireland could go in to Monday’s game with Wales knowing a win will guarantee them a spot in the play-offs at least.

2. From Dundalk disillusionment to international football in two years

Sean Maguire Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

After a satisfactory first-half display, and with the game all but over, Ireland effectively took their foot off the gas in the second half last night, as a limited Moldova outfit seldom threatened a comeback.

Consequently, the second period was a largely drab affair, though the stadium was brought back to life on 83 minutes.

Sean Maguire’s introduction prompted one of the biggest cheers of the night, as the current League of Ireland top scorer made his international debut.

After his high-profile move to Preston in the summer transfer window, the 23-year-old has retained a genuine passion and childlike enthusiasm for the game that is reminiscent of a young Robbie Keane.

Moreover, his story is quite incredible. Less than two years ago, he was not deemed good enough to even make Dundalk’s bench for their FAI Cup final with Cork.

A disillusioned Maguire considered quitting the game.

“I felt like I’d had enough,” he told The42 back in July. “I was in a bad place, not just after Dundalk but while I was at Sligo as well. I was 19 when I was up there and people were on my back. Things weren’t going well. You don’t need that at that age. You can probably handle criticism when you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, but it’s different then. It drains your love for the game.

“I was thinking I’d probably just go back and live with my parents, maybe go to college. But my parents had the right advice. They were great. I wouldn’t be where I am now without them. I was only 21 so they knew I had to keep going. They calmed me down. Then I heard from John.”

That phone call from Cork City boss John Caulfield changed Maguire’s life ultimately. He went from being an unwanted makeshift right winger at the Lilywhites to the League of Ireland’s deadliest striker.

Barring a miracle Dundalk revival between now and the end of the season, Maguire will probably be remembered as the man most responsible for guiding Cork City to just their third-ever League of Ireland Premier Division title.

And just as significantly, he shows the value of persistence and resilience — the former Waterford United attacker can even be looked upon as a role model for all young footballers.

Despite his young age, Maguire has already experienced the dramatic highs and lows of football — from being let go by West Ham to becoming a senior Ireland international in the space of a little over two years.

3. A frustrating night for Shane Long

Shane Long reacts to a missed chance Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Shane Long is clearly short on confidence at the moment.

Playing Moldova last night, they were the sort of meek opposition that any top striker should be able to take advantage of.

And while Daryl Murphy grabbed a clinical brace, Long was left to rue a number of missed opportunities, with even Martin O’Neill admitting afterwards that the 30-year-old striker had experienced better days in front of goal.

As ever, Long’s willingness to put himself about and work the channels was to be admired. There is far more to his game than goals — with his less-than-spectacular career tally, he would hardly have survived in the Premier League so long (no pun intended) were it not for his possession of the type of altruistic attributes that not all strikers can boast of having in their makeup.

Yet last night will have been worrying viewing for O’Neill, as the Tipperary native continually lacked ruthlessness when presented with golden opportunities, in the process showing why he has failed to score for club or country in nine appearances this season.

There was a palpable anxiety evident in his inept finishing, highlighted by his increasingly pained reactions to consistently poor attempts at goal.

Long has been a wonderful servant to Ireland, no one will ever forget his superb winner against Germany just two years ago, while his pace is likely to trouble most defences.

Nevertheless, having started eight games up front in this qualifying campaign, he has managed only one goal, with Ireland drawing blanks at home to both Serbia and Wales.

Sooner or later, you have to ask whether Long’s tireless work ethic compensates for his lack of goal threat, and if Ireland would be better served employing a more natural predator such as Murphy in attack when everyone is fit.

4. Have peripheral players done enough to start in Wales?

Callum O’Dowda Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Suspensions to Robbie Brady and James McClean meant some of Ireland’s less established players got a chance to impress at the Aviva on Friday night.

22-year-old Bristol City winger Callum O’Dowda made his full competitive debut, while Daryl Murphy enjoyed his first competitive start since the 2-1 loss to France at Euro 2o16.

Wes Hoolahan, who has been in and out of the team during this campaign, also played, while David Meyler produced an imposing performance to strengthen the belief of many that he deserves to be Ireland’s first-choice holding midfielder ahead of Glenn Whelan.

O’Dowda, particularly in the first half, stood out. He linked up well with Hoolahan and was continually looking to create and take on his man.

The Norwich star also excelled, frequently controlling the play and producing a lovely cross-field pass for Ireland’s second goal.

Yet as well as these players did, it seems unlikely that they will all retain their places against Wales.

Speaking about Brady and McClean after last night’s match, O’Neill strongly hinted they would be imminently recalled, saying: “There’s a fairly decent chance that both of those will start (on Monday.”

Consequently, despite their impressive showings last night, Hoolahan and O’Dowda may have to settle for a place on the bench in Cardiff.

Perhaps tellingly, however, O’Neill was less equivocal when asked whether Daryl Murphy had done enough to displace Shane Long in the team for next week’s must-win fixture at Cardiff City Stadium.

“Who knows?” The Ireland boss answered ambiguously.

The 34-year-old Nottingham Forest attacker certainly cannot have done much more to stake his claim for a place in the starting XI, with his two well-taken goals starkly contrasting with the misfiring Long’s efforts.

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