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Can Rob Elliot stake a claim for number 1 jersey and more Ireland-Slovakia talking points

Plus, will Alan Judge get another chance and what formation will Ireland play?

1. Can Rob Elliot stake a claim for number one jersey?

Rob Elliot Rob Elliot is expected to start in goal for Ireland tonight.

ROB ELLIOT HAS made 22 appearances this season for Newcastle so far, but the 29-year-old goalkeeper has only three caps in total for Ireland.

Of the other ostensible contenders for the Ireland number one goalkeeping jersey, Darren Randolph has featured 16 times in all competitions this campaign including Ireland games, though only three of these have been Premier League fixtures.

In addition, David Forde has played 10 times for Millwall, but he hasn’t started a game in League One for his club since the beginning of January.

And Shay Given has played in just two Capitol One Cup games for Stoke and three Ireland matches since the start of the 2015-16 campaign, yet he seems set for more first-team action at club level, after the Potters’ regular number one Jack Butland was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a fractured ankle.

O’Neill has stated in the past that club form will be of considerable significance when it comes to picking both his squad and team for the Euros.

While Randolph has made some eye-catching FA Cup appearances and Given could be set to prove his worth for Stoke, Elliot has undoubtedly been the best Irish goalkeeper at club level this season.

Whether or not the Newcastle stopper’s impressive domestic displays are enough to displace the consistently reliable Randolph in the Ireland number one jersey remains to be seen, but a solid performance at the Aviva tonight certainly won’t harm his chances of getting game time come June.

2. How much of a challenge will Slovakia pose?

Slovakia Spain Euro Soccer Slovakia's Martin Skrtel, right, and Jan Durica, left, celebrate after their victory in Group C Euro 2016 qualifying match against Spain. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Slovakia aren’t world beaters by any means, but they certainly appear to be a decent side that are more than a match for the Irish team.

Ján Kozák’s men are currently ranked 26th in the world — three places above Ireland — and they qualified for the Euros in second place after impressively beating Spain on home turf during one of the group games, and winning seven out of 10 of their qualifiers in total.

Most Premier League fans will be familiar with captain Martin Skrtel of Liverpool, but players such as Napoli’s Marek Hamšík, Milan’s Juraj Kucka and Slovan Bratislava’s Róbert Vittek are similarly crucial to the team.

Of course, particularly in friendlies, reputations aren’t always vindicated, as evidenced by the 12th-ranked Swiss side’s rather uninspired display in Dublin on Friday.

The Slovaks have never beaten Ireland in four attempts, but they will surely be eager to put in a strong showing this evening, as they prepare to face somewhat similar sides to Ireland at the Euros in the form of England and Wales.

3. Who will play up front?

Republic of Ireland v Switzerland - International Friendly - Aviva Stadium Ireland's Shane Long (left) and Switzerland's Timm Klose battle for the ball. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

With Robbie Keane, Jon Walters, Kevin Doyle and Daryl Murphy all having to withdraw from the squad through injury, and David McGoldrick and Adam Rooney not deemed fit enough to be picked in the first place, Ireland have a severe striker shortage currently.

Shane Long played 84 minutes of the Switzerland game on Friday, and as a result, it seems unlikely that O’Neill will be willing to risk the Southampton man for the full 90 minutes this evening.

The Irish boss neglected to bring in any replacement forwards, which possibly tells you how little he thinks of the alternatives.

Original squad members Anthony Stokes and Simon Cox are presumably disappointed they didn’t get a belated call-up, while it surely wouldn’t have done any harm if the likes of Joe Mason or Aiden O’Brien were given a rare chance, even if they are not quite at the same level of most of the squad currently.

Consequently, aside from Long, O’Neill’s options are limited, which means James McClean could be played as a makeshift striker, as was the case for the final few minutes of Friday’s game.

Fit-again Anthony Pilkington is another option, with the 27-year-old, who is best renowned as a winger, having played up front for Cardiff this season.

4. Which fringe players will get a chance to impress?

Republic of Ireland v Switzerland - International Friendly - Aviva Stadium Alan Judge struggled to make an impact in attack on Friday. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Last week’s match against Switzerland was very much a case of established players mixed with the more peripheral likes of Alan Judge, Shane Duffy and Stephen Quinn in the starting XI.

O’Neill has said he hopes to give as many players as possible a game during the current squad get-together, so expect the Ireland boss to ring the changes for this evening’s match.

Stephen Gleeson could be handed his first cap in nine years, while Wolves full-back Matt Doherty is in line to make his senior debut.

Others who had cameos on Friday, such as Jonny Hayes and Eunan O’Kane, will be hoping for a more substantial role, while the likes of Paul McShane and Alex Pearce will surely need a Shane Duffy-esque performance to give themselves any hope of earning a place on the plane to France.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see whether Alan Judge gets another crack at the whip. The Brentford midfielder, considered a possibility for the Euros squad, hardly set the world alight against the Swiss, but nonetheless produced a dogged display with no shortage of endeavour.

The 27-year-old ex-Blackburn player will be hoping that, if he does play, he will have the opportunity to impress in his favoured number 10 position this time, which could give him a better opportunity to demonstrate his undoubted attacking prowess.

5. What formation will Ireland play?

Republic of Ireland v Switzerland - International Friendly - Aviva Stadium Martin O'Neill's options will be limited by a striker shortage tonight. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Martin O’Neill last week suggested teams such as Ireland can take heart from Leicester City’s Premier League success this year, and in some senses, the Boys in Green displayed similarities to the Foxes on Friday night against the Swiss.

Like Claudio Ranieri’s men, they opted for a 4-4-2 system, with two energetic, hard-working strikers, a solid but unspectacular midfield pairing and the more mercurial players out wide.

In addition, Ireland certainly defended with the rigour that Leicester often display and gave the ball away with the same regularity.

But that said, the experiment for the most part didn’t seem to work, as aside from the opening few minutes, Martin O’Neill’s men gave a flat performance devoid of the type of thrills that the Premier League leaders invariably deliver.

Swizerland had 69% of the possession over the 90 minutes — an incredible stat considering they were the away team — and largely controlled the play, even if they weren’t good enough to break down a resolute Irish rearguard.

The Boys in Green were simply outnumbered in the middle of the field, and struggled to get the ball off their opponents as a consequence, with Martin O’Neill admitting afterwards that his team were guilty of a lack of “confidence” in possession.

Bringing the technically accomplished Wes Hoolahan back into the starting XI would surely go some way towards rectifying this problem, as would adding an extra body in midfield at the expense of a striker.

Therefore, it would be a surprise if Ireland don’t revert back to a more customary 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 formation tonight, especially given the lack of fit forwards currently at O’Neill’s disposal.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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