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5 talking points from last night's Ireland-Italy game

The Irish team’s Everton-style formation, Shane Long’s continuing misfortune in front of goal and more.

The uncertainty over Roy Keane's future dominated the post-match press talk.
The uncertainty over Roy Keane's future dominated the post-match press talk.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

1. Ireland appear to be adopting an Everton-style formation

WHILE IRELAND DIDN’T win last night, they produced surely the best performance of the Martin O’Neill era thus far and the Northern Irishman will certainly have found the friendly to have been a valuable exercise.

Perhaps what will please the 62-year-old manager the most is the fact that his side didn’t concede a goal and apart from a chaotic opening 10 minutes, looked relatively solid at the back for the most part.

Moreover, the foundation he intends to build on in the coming months was very much on display at Craven Cottage.

Ireland adopted a 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 formation that was reminiscent of the style Everton — along with a number of other sides — tend to favour.

Hence, David Meyler and Jeff Hendrick sat in midfield as James McCarthy and Gareth Barry do with the Toffees, allowing others, most notably the full-backs, to burst forward (with Coleman clearly more comfortable than Ward in this regard).

But of course, while initial signs were promising, it was only a friendly — Ireland beat Italy 2-0 in a similarly meaningless fixture under Trap, so it’s unwise to read too much into one result irrespective of how encouraging the performance was.

2. Italy not a World Cup contender on that evidence

As impressive as Ireland were, there is no doubt that Italy were not at their best last night.

Watching on from the stands, Gary Neville and Roy Hodgson will certainly be no less optimistic now about England’s World Cup chances after witnessing the Italians up close.

In defence of Cesare Prandelli’s side though, they did look a force to be reckoned with as they threatened to overrun Ireland in the opening 10 minutes, with Martin O’Neill’s men in particular struggling to cope with their opponents’ overlapping full-backs and incisive diagonal balls.

In addition, even Prandelli admitted afterwards that Riccardo Montolivo’s very serious-looking injury had a negative psychological impact on the entire team.

So of course, Italy shouldn’t be dismissed as World Cup contenders on the basis of that performance (not that they were particularly fancied to begin with), but it certainly won’t silence their critics or enhance their confidence going into the tournament.

Even the support of the majority of the 22,000-plus crowd at Craven Cottage could not inspire the Azzurri players to victory, as they struggled to break down Ireland’s diligent backline.

3. Long deserves a goal

Shane Long with Leonardo Bonucci Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

(Shane Long caused the Italian defence problems, but also missed some good chances)

Not for the first time, Shane Long had at least one gilt-edged opportunity that he failed to take yesterday.

Yet while his finishing could have been better, as ever, the Hull striker’s all-round game was impressive and showed no sign of the lack of confidence or hesitation that’s sometimes evident in his play at decisive moments.

He worked tirelessly, causing the Italians problems all night with his pace and physicality, memorably shunting his marker to the ground at one point through sheer strength.

At 27 however, Long can no longer blame inexperience for his failures in front of goal. Nevertheless, not many players can play the lone frontman role as well as him in the general play — Robbie Keane, for all his talent, may struggle to fulfill such a responsibility — which is why it’s vital that the Tipperary native finds his goalscoring touch sooner rather than later, as O’Neill seems keen on playing a single striker.

4. McGeady showing greater consistency

Aiden McGeady has always been somewhat frustrating to watch, however the degree of his ineptitude tends to be exaggerated.

After all, no one provided more assists than the Everton man during the Euro 2012 qualifiers, and Ireland patently suffered creatively in their key World Cup qualifiers owing to his absence through injury.

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Therefore, while he sometimes lacks end product, he certainly provides more than the average Irish player.

And more pertinently, the Scottish-born winger has been one of the consistent bright spots under Martin O’Neill, and last night was no exception.

While there were one or two frustrating moments from the former Celtic man, in general, he has been less wasteful in possession in comparison to previous campaigns, while his crossing seemed more accurate than usual to boot.

And indeed, at least one of McGeady’s assists probably should have resulted in an Ireland goal, with Salvatore Sirigu memorably saving well from Shane Long’s goal-bound header in the 33rd minute.

5. How much would Roy Keane’s departure affect this team?

While there has been no confirmation of Roy Keane’s departure to Celtic, the signs were not good last night.

Martin O’Neill says he expects to have the issue resolved by Wednesday, and assuming Keane is as eager as Dermot Desmond and Celtic appear to be, then a deal is surely inevitable.

One of the most pleasing aspects of last night’s game was both the intensity of Ireland’s tackling and their willingness to play the ball out from the back and try to hold onto possession for sustained periods, even against a team of the calibre of Italy.

These characteristics were certainly less pronounced in the Giovanni Trapattoni era, and Keane and O’Neill deserve praise for how quickly they seem to have implemented such good habits.

But assuming Keane does leave, there is no reason why they shouldn’t continue to play in such a constructive manner, though the fear is that an edge will be taken off the intensity of the preparation and performance as a result.

Given how well-liked the Man United legend is among Ireland players and staff by all accounts, picking up the players mentally, if his exit become a reality, is a challenge that cannot be underestimated.

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Paul Fennessy

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