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3 winners and losers from Ireland's latest international week

Who stood out and who didn’t amid a memorable few days for Martin O’Neill’s side.

The winners

David Meyler

United Kingdom: Wales v Republic of Ireland - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

One of the players who has really come of age during this campaign, Meyler described Cardiff as the best night of his footballing life.

It was not the first time the Corkonian has put in a big performance for Ireland. He excelled as a makeshift full-back as Ireland earned a draw away to Germany in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

In this campaign, he also stood out after coming on as an early substitute for Glenn Whelan in Austria, helping the side secure a 1-0 win and even playing a part in James McClean’s superb winner.

Even amid last month’s disappointment against Serbia at the Aviva, Meyler was arguably the best player on the pitch, and after another effective display in a big win over Wales, it now finally feels as if the 28-year-old Hull midfielder has done enough to establish himself in the starting XI.

A yellow card that means he will miss next month’s play-off first leg was the one blotch on an otherwise perfect night.

James McClean

Wales v Republic of Ireland - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Cardiff City Stadium Source: Nigel French

It’s hard to believe that as recently as the Euros, James McClean was considered a good impact sub more so than a starter.

In this qualifying campaign, the Derry native has developed into a key player for Ireland. Arguably no one has done more to get the Boys in Green to this point.

Before last night, the West Brom winger’s vital goals against Austria and Moldova had left Ireland in a healthy position in the group.

And in Cardiff, McClean again was the man in the right place to fire home a brilliant winner.

The former Derry City player’s pace and work rate off the ball alone would make the 28-year-old worthy of a place in the team, but he has become truly formidable since adding goals to his game at international level.

Daryl Murphy

Daryl Murphy celebrates scoring a second goal Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Daryl Murphy may not have Shane Long’s pace and mobility, but with eight goals so far this season in all competitions, he is clearly more of a natural poacher than the Tipperary native.

That said, Murphy’s goal tally for Ireland had been poor until recently. It took the Waterford native until this campaign to score a first goal for his country, heading home a crucial 81st-minute equaliser to earn a point in Serbia.

Yet it was only against Moldova, amid his 28th cap last week, that the 34-year-old was handed his first start since the Euros. The Nottingham Forest star proceeded to take the opportunity with aplomb, doubling his overall tally at international level in one night with a match-winning brace.

Against Wales, he was less effective, given that opportunities in attack were few and far between with Ireland largely on the backfoot.

Nevertheless, Murphy worked tirelessly as the lone frontman and held the ball up well when he got it. The veteran striker will now probably be considered the favourite to start up front in the play-offs next month.

The losers

O’Neill skeptics

Wales v Republic of Ireland - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Cardiff City Stadium Source: Nigel French

Reaction to news last week that Martin O’Neill had agreed a new contract with the FAI that will take him up to the end of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign was mixed at best.

Despite helping Ireland get to the Euros, the team’s struggles more recently in qualifying, the style of play and his conservative team selections were among the critics’ complaints, while the timing of the announcement — just before two crucial qualifiers — was also odd, given how the games in question would shape the national mood.

The reservations were summed about by the RTÉ panel, all of whom criticised O’Neill for his reluctance to start Wes Hoolahan ahead of the Wales game.

Yet the 65-year-old coach silenced the naysayers, as his side delivered a unified, tactically astute performance to secure a huge win in Wales.

The manager and the team have a habit of pulling off big results when they need it most and even one of O’Neill’s fiercest critics, Eamon Dunphy, afterwards admitted: “I don’t like his style of football, it’s not personal. But he delivered tonight.

“He delivered in the European Championships and I can live with it, because everyone in Ireland is happy tonight.”

Glenn Whelan

Moldova v Republic of Ireland - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Zimbru Stadium Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Glenn Whelan has been written off before. When he was dropped at the Euros for Ireland’s games with Italy and France, many felt his days as a first-team regular had come to an end.

Yet he went on to play a big part in this campaign, starting games more often than not. Nonetheless, the 33-year-old has not been able to find a way into the starting XI since he was dropped on account of a disappointing performance in Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Georgia last month.

With 82 caps, the Dubliner is one of Ireland’s most capped players ever, and there is no doubt he has been a terrific servant and model professional for the national team since making his debut in a match against Serbia in 2008.

Meyler’s suspension for the upcoming play-off first leg means Whelan could yet play a big role in this campaign, but in recent weeks, it has become apparent that the Aston Villa midfielder is no longer the automatic starter he once was considered to be.

Shane Long

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

As Martin O’Neill admitted Long said to him after the Moldova match last week, the off-form striker “cannot buy a goal” at the minute.

For all his well-documented attributes — work-rate, pace, physicality — the Tipperary native, one spectacular season for Reading aside (he scored 21 goals in 44 Championship appearances in the 2010-11 season), has never been a prolific scorer.

Yet even by his standards, Long has disappointed in front of goal lately. It has been over a year since he scored for Ireland now, while the 30-year-old has not found the net for Southampton since 11 February in a 4-0 win over Sunderland.

Long missed more than one gilt-edged opportunity against Moldova and it is uncertain whether he would have started the Wales match were it not for a hip injury, which meant that Martin O’Neill had no decision to make.

The Irish boss will hope the player rediscovers his confidence soon though, as at his best, Long is most definitely an asset to the Irish team. As honest a player as Murphy is, his colleague’s far superior pace arguably renders him more suitable to playing the lone frontman role.

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Paul Fennessy

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