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Critics pointed towards Ireland's results ahead of massive night on the Road to Russia

“Criticism is not going to win or lose you a game. It’s what you do on the field.”

Daryl Murphy scored a late equaliser for Ireland in the 2-2 draw with Serbia in Belgrade last year.
Daryl Murphy scored a late equaliser for Ireland in the 2-2 draw with Serbia in Belgrade last year.
Image: Nick Potts

Ireland v Serbia, Aviva Stadium — 7.45pm tonight (RTÉ 2 & Sky Sports Main Event) 

THIS TIME TWO years ago, Ireland’s hopes of qualification for a first major tournament under Martin O’Neill looked all but over.

Failure to win at home to Scotland earlier in the summer left the Boys in Green sitting fourth in Group D and with fixtures to come against the top two sides — Germany and Poland — very few people were giving them any chance of progressing to Euro 2016.

But on the first weekend of September, the Scots travelled to Tbilisi and, just like Ireland did last Saturday, found it difficult against a Georgian side they were expected to beat. Coincidentally, Valeri Kazaishvili was also the goalscorer at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena that night but, while the Boys in Green dropped two points with a 1-1 draw in their most recent qualifier, Gordon Strachan’s man tasted defeat at the exact same stage of the last campaign.

Up to that point, that Scottish side had been widely-lauded as an example of a manager getting the best out of a hard-working group of players with limited ability. Over in Faro that evening, Ireland leapfrogged them into third thanks to a routine victory over Gibraltar, then secured the play-off place at their expense by causing a famous upset against the world champions in Dublin the following month.

The current management team’s remit is to get the country to European championships and World Cups. They are paid quite a lot of money to do just that (O’Neill was the eighth-highest earning manager at Euro 2016), and so far they have delivered.

There were big nights against Germany and Bosnia along the way, and last summer fans were given a couple of unforgettable moments in Wes Hoolahan’s goal against Sweden and the win over Italy.

Despite the morale-boosting victory in Vienna and the fact that Ireland sit second in the group and remain unbeaten with three games left, there have often been murmurs of discontent in relation to the style of play, which have grown louder in recent days.

O’Neill was roundly criticised, more so for the team’s limp performance against Georgia rather than the result itself, and that is completely understandable. The long ball tactics to a lone striker who isn’t even the best target man in the squad, and the tendency to sit deep and allow the home side time to play, has rightly left many Irish fans feeling short-changed.

Wes Hoolahan Wes Hoolahan and David Meyler during Monday's session. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Moreover, the Derry man’s needlessly ultra-defensive manner during his post-match interview with RTÉ reporter Tony O’Donoghue may well have turned some supporters against him.

As Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland showed against the Czech Republic with just 23% possession in a 2-0 win last night, you don’t necessarily need the lion’s share of the ball to win football matches but a gameplan that plays to your strengths is essential.

“Criticism comes with the territory,” was the Republic of Ireland manager’s response to the negativity yesterday. “If you haven’t played well, I think you leave yourself open to criticism — that’s no problem.

“As a manager, that’s my responsibility, what happens on the field, and I take that. In the three years that I’ve been involved competitively, actually four years, we went quite a number of months without a competitive game. The criticism has followed it around.

“The Scotland game in November time was a month after we had drawn against Germany away. We lost that game and it was doom and gloom. We drew with Scotland in June the following year and it was more doom and gloom.

We were the ones that went to the Euros, where we performed very well. If we’d have had another two or three days of preparation after we had beaten Italy, we may well have turned France over. It’s very possible, who knows?”

He added: “We have gone on from that to remain unbeaten. We haven’t lost a competitive game here, despite some poor 25 minutes, half-hours, even 45 minutes, as it was the other night. We remain unbeaten in the competition, so those sort of things keep you going.

“I think the players sometimes have to be reminded of that. We have taken the criticism and we really get on with it. We know we have to push it to the side because the criticism is not going to win or lose you a game, it’s what you do on the field. If we play very, very strongly on the night, we can win the game.”

The objective seems pretty clear then. You would expect a big reaction from the players after what was quite possibly the worst performance of the O’Neill era and on their day, Ireland are capable of causing problems for nations who possess better technical ability.

The Wes Hoolahan debate is alive and well after he was left on the bench in Tbilisi. At 35, the Norwich City schemer remains the team’s most creative outlet but it emerged yesterday that he could be doubtful due to a tight groin, while Aiden McGeady (hamstring) is also a worry and Jeff Hendrick (quad) will play no part.

Aleksandar Mitrovic and Nemanja Matic Mitrovic and Matic training at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

A rejuvenated Serbia have four wins and three draws so far and the Group D leaders come into the game after seeing off Moldova 3-0 over the weekend. Between them, Newcastle United striker Aleksandar Mitrovic and Southampton winger Dusan Tadic have bagged 10 of their 16 goals, while Tadic also had seven assists to his name.

Roma full-back Aleksandar Kolarov and Manchester United’s defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic were both suspended when the sides drew 2-2 in Belgrade a year ago, but the pair are available and add vast experience Slavoljub Muslin’s side.

The 64-year-old, who has managed 17 clubs across Serbia, Russia, France, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belgium, Cyprus, Belarus and Morocco, seems to have reinvigorated the team and he maintains a point would do them this evening.

“We are going for a win if we can, but the draw would not be a bad result for us,” he told the media yesterday. “There are still two more matches to play and six points [after tonight]. So it’s not everything over with after this match.”

For Ireland, three points puts them right back in the mix for automatic qualification, defeat would make finishing in the top two extremely difficult, while a draw looks the most likely outcome.

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Ben Blake

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