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3 winners and losers from Ireland's latest international week

The Boys in Green’s qualification hopes hang by a thread after last night’s result.

The winners

1. David Meyler

David Meyler Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There was plenty of responsibility on David Meyler’s shoulders against Serbia last night, as he came into an Irish side as the holding midfielder in a very attack-minded line-up.

Yet the Hull player more than compensated for the absence of Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter, sweeping up in front of the back four superbly.

The 28-year-old has performed admirably for Ireland in the past, in an unfamiliar right-back role away to Germany and as part of the midfield for much of Ireland’s match with Austria in Vienna, as he replaced the injured Glenn Whelan on 22 minutes.

Martin O’Neill was understandably coy when asked after the game if Meyler has done enough to earn a more permanent place in the starting XI, but many critics will feel he has edged ahead of Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter in the pecking order.

2. Wes Hoolahan

Republic of Ireland v Serbia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium Source: Niall Carson

Let’s be clear: no one is saying Wes Hoolahan is the best player in the world or the saviour of the Irish team.

The Dubliner’s issues have been well documented — he is 35 and doesn’t always start for Norwich, though he was the Canaries’ player of the year as recently as last season.

The key question is whether Ireland are better with or without him in the side, and there has been plenty of evidence to support the former claim in recent times. Last night was a prime example — Ireland played like a different team to the one that laboured to a draw out in Georgia after belatedly accommodating Hoolahan in the starting XI.

In addition, the ex-Shelbourne player’s substitution was a key moment too. While it helped instigate the moment that led to Nikola Maksimovic’s sending off, with Daryl Murphy almost instantaneously causing problems for the opposition, it also prompted Ireland to give up any pretense of trying to play football and instead constantly pump long balls into the box.

The value of the ex-Blackpool player’s influence has been clear over the course of these qualifiers, as Ireland’s most impressive performances — Austria, Moldova, last night — have tended to occur with the him in the team.

Unfortunately though, Ireland will not be able to rely on Hoolahan much longer, as these World Cup qualifiers will almost certainly be his last campaign before retiring from international duty.

3. Wales

Moldova v Wales - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Stadionul Zimbru Source: Steven Paston

Wales appeared to be firmly out of contention in Group D at one point.

However, Ireland’s disappointing recent displays, picking up just three points from their last four games, has allowed Chris Coleman back into it.

The Dragons’ rejuvenated form has enabled them to pick up vital wins over Austria and Moldova, so Wales now sit a point ahead of Ireland in Group D.

They will consequently be confident of sealing second place when the sides meet in a crunch encounter in Cardiff next month.

The losers

1. Glenn Whelan

Soccer WCup 2018 Georgia Republic of Ireland Source: Shakh Aivazov

There is often a lack of balance in the analysis whenever Glenn Whelan’s name is brought up. The Aston Villa midfielder is not this great underappreciated gem, nor is he as woeful as some of his harshest critics seem to think.

In reality, he is a decent, hard-working midfielder, who makes up for limited ability with tremendous discipline and good positional sense.

However, at 33, he is past his best, and the Aston Villa player was made to look old last Saturday, as Ireland were completely outclassed by Georgia in midfield.

Whelan is now Ireland’s most capped central midfielder ever on 82 caps (one off legendary defender Paul McGrath), so he deserves enormous credit for his professionalism in achieving this feat, but on the basis of Saturday night, his leggy performance suggests the Dubliner’s days as an automatic starter could be coming to an end.

2. Martin O’Neill

Republic of Ireland v Serbia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium Source: Niall Carson

The manager has made a number of big calls over the course of the past week, some more contentious than others, but Ireland’s tally of one point from these two games overall is less than satisfactory and leaves the Boys in Green’s qualification hopes in jeopardy.

Playing a conservative team in Georgia with Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter in midfield didn’t really work, and while he deserves some credit for making the necessary changes against Serbia, Ireland appeared to lose their heads a little and resort to hit-and-hope football in final half hour of the game.

The manager is ultimately key in controlling players’ temperament and dictating how his team plays, and O’Neill fell short in this regard.

3. Shane Long

Republic of Ireland v Serbia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium Source: Niall Carson

11 February 2017 amid Southampton’s 4-0 win over Sunderland was the last time Shane Long scored a competitive goal.

Last night, the Tipperary native appeared short of confidence, as Ireland struggled against a defensively compact Serbia side.

Long bore the brunt of some criticism by assistant Roy Keane in the lead up to these games, while Martin O’Neill lamented the absence of a natural goalscorer in Robbie Keane, which was a roundabout way of saying Long wasn’t good enough to be relied on regularly for goals.

For all their admirable endeavour, Ireland lacked composure in the final third, seeing just three of their 17 shots in total hit the target. Long was as guilty a culprit as anyone, at one point near the end, passing the ball straight out of play to kill the momentum of an attack.

The hosts were missing a clinical edge going forward and it speaks volumes that only Faroe Islands, Latvia, San Marino and Liechtenstein have scored fewer goals at home out of all the European sides in World Cup qualification currently.

Long did not have the best of games away to Georgia either, and with new strikers such as Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan coming into the reckoning, the 30-year-old needs to improve or he could lose his place in the team sooner rather than later.

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Paul Fennessy

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