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Who can lift goal-shy Ireland and more talking points ahead of tonight's crucial game

The Boys in Green have struggled in front of goal at times in the campaign

Sean Maguire (left) and Aiden McGeady pictured at Ireland training during the week.
Sean Maguire (left) and Aiden McGeady pictured at Ireland training during the week.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. Who can lift goal-shy Ireland?

AS IT STANDS, Ireland have managed just two goals in four home games over the course of qualifying.

Only four teams — San Marino, Liechtenstein, Latvia and Faroe Islands — have an inferior record to the Boys in Green in this regard.

Ireland’s deficiencies in attack were in full display in the most recent qualifier against Serbia at the Aviva, in which a 1-0 loss left the team’s hopes of a World Cup place hanging by a thread.

Time and again, whether it was Callum O’Dowda, Cyrus Christie, James McClean or someone else, poor decisions were made in the final third, as Ireland lacked the composure required in this deeply pressurised situation.

The introduction of uncapped attacking trio Sean Maguire, Aiden O’Brien and Scott Hogan has given the squad a fresh look.

The players in question may be there to a degree by default — Jon Walters’ absence through injury and Kevin Doyle’s sudden retirement has freed up space.

However, that is not to say the trio are not there on merit and have no chance of starting. Martin O’Neill has been willing to throw inexperienced players into the deep end before — Kevin Long v Austria at home being the prime example.

The Irish boss did admit during the week that the onus was on the inexperienced attackers to prove their worth in training, though with Ireland lacking an out-and-out poacher ever since Robbie Keane’s retirement, O’Neill may be tempted to try something different in attack. Though he could also opt for a slightly more familiar face to either replace or play alongside Shane Long, with Daryl Murphy hitting six Championship goals amid an encouraging start to life at Nottingham Forest.

There at times tends to be a bias among disenfranchised critics and supporters towards young, unproven players who offer the unexpected. However, Murphy is the in-form Irish striker at club level currently, yet the 34-year-old has not started a competitive fixture at international level since the 2-1 loss to France at the Euros.

Further back, the suspensions of James McClean and Robbie Brady should also hand more peripheral members of the side an opportunity.

Wes Hoolahan tends to not start matches twice in quick succession, so it will be interesting to see whether O’Neill opts to play him tonight or save the Norwich star for the climactic battle in Cardiff.

Callum O’Dowda and Aiden McGeady could also be handed opportunities. The latter has been in fine form, even if his club, 23rd-placed Sunderland, have not, with the 31-year-old winger registering two goals in his last two appearances for the Black Cats.

22-year-old O’Dowda, meanwhile, has made 11 Championship appearances for fourth-placed Bristol City, though only four of those games were starts.

Conor Hourihane, who came on against Serbia, could possibly be handed a first competitive start. With five goals already for Aston Villa this season, he is arguably the closest thing Ireland have right now to a goalscoring central midfielder.

2. Was O’Neill contract decision the right one?

Martin O'Neill Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The decision to award Martin O’Neill a new contract just ahead of this crucial make-or-break stage of qualifying has certainly raised a few eyebrows.

Most pundits will feel much better placed to give a definitive judgement of the decision by Tuesday morning, when Ireland will almost certainly either be eliminated from World Cup qualifying or have gained an unlikely spot in the play-offs.

Yet as it stands, has O’Neill done enough to warrant an extension that will keep him in the job until the end of qualifying for the 2020 Euros at least?

On a pure results basis, you could argue that he has. Even if Ireland do not make it to Russia, virtually every Irish manager since John Giles has been allowed at least one failure to qualify for a major tournament.

The two exceptions are Alan Kelly Sr, who stepped down after one game in charge, and Steve Staunton, whose single campaign at the helm featured some of the worst moments in Irish footballing history, including the 5-2 thrashing by Cyprus and the embarrassing reliance on a last-minute winner to beat San Marino.

O’Neill has also managed a feat only emulated by Jack Charlton in steering the team to qualification for a tournament at the first attempt, though the caveat is that while Charlton ensured Ireland were one of eight teams competing at Euro ’88, O’Neill needed the play-offs to secure one of the 24 spots available for Euro 2016.

The Ireland boss’ critics will point to an over-reliance on route-one football and a perceived lack of tactical acumen or sense of a coherent gameplan in matches, all of which O’Neill would likely heavily refute.

The wisest comment on the matter, however, was perhaps made by the aforementioned Giles.

Speaking on Off the Ball last night, he recalled how coming towards the end of Ireland’s Euro ’88 campaign, Charlton was being heavily criticised in the press as the Boys in Green looked set to miss out on another tournament.

However, Gary Mackay’s famous goal and Scotland’s subsequent shock win in Bulgaria handed Ireland a surprise ticket to Germany and the then-Irish boss — without actually doing anything himself in that specific time period — was practically transformed from villain to hero overnight in the eyes of many.

Another big Scottish win may have ultimately played a part in Ireland’s rejuvenation this time around as well, and these next couple of days will likely be key in shaping opinions on whether or not the O’Neill contract decision is deemed astute.

3. Will the Irish team respond to extra pressure?

Jeff Hendrick Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

In the past, particularly under Martin O’Neill, Ireland have had a habit of picking up a big result against the odds.

But all the way back as far as that memorable play-off in Paris in 2009 during the Giovanni Trapattoni era, when Ireland simply needed a victory, they excelled.

While they ultimately still lost that tie against France thanks in large part to the infamous Thierry Henry handball incident, there have been happier times since.

Most notably, the games against Germany, Italy and Bosnia — arguably Ireland’s three best performances under O’Neill. What those games had in common is that on each occasion, the Boys in Green simply needed a win.

There has been a hesitance and nervousness to Ireland’s play for much of this campaign. The 1-0 defeat of Austria in Vienna aside, it is hard to single out a truly excellent performance since the Euros.

At the Aviva in particular, where Ireland so impressively overcame the Germans only two years ago, the Boys in Green’s play has been afflicted by a lack of conviction leading to largely disappointing results against Wales, Austria and Serbia.

Now that they are playing in matches that they almost certainly need to win, fans will be hoping the shackles finally come off and that the likes of Jeff Hendrick can get to the level they have reached both at club level and in previous qualification campaigns.

4. Not a ‘must-win’ in the most literal sense

Many people, this writer included, have previously referred to Ireland’s two upcoming qualifiers as must-win games, without really thinking about that description.

While six points at the very least will likely be necessary to advance to the World Cup in 2018, the fixtures are not necessarily ‘must win’ in the strictest sense.

Tonight, Ireland could theoretically get away with matching Wales’ result in Georgia. So there is still a chance a draw would not be the end of the road in terms of qualification, even if it would be a fairly sizeable blow to the team’s morale.

A win over Moldova and a draw with Wales could also potentially be enough to advance to the play-offs if Chris Coleman’s men drop points in Tbilisi, although it would be dependent on a highly improbable set of results from elsewhere — essentially, it would require Greece losing to Cyprus and Bosnia dropping points against Belgium and Estonia.

You can view a more detailed list of possible permutations for Ireland here.

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Paul Fennessy

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