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Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 20 April 2021
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Do you agree with our Ireland starting XI to face Moldova?

Martin O’Neill faces some tough selection calls ahead of the upcoming games.

Our starting XI v Moldova

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Predicted starting XI v Moldova

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Our starting XI v Wales

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Predicted starting XI v Wales

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THE MESSAGE FROM the Ireland camp all week has been that they cannot afford to focus on the Wales game before the Moldova match.

Privately though, Martin O’Neill will surely be planning on picking his starting team on Friday with an eye on Monday.

It’s highly unlikely that the same starting XI will be used for both games. James McClean and Robbie Brady are both suspended for the Aviva encounter, and both will be expected to come back into the team against Wales.

There is also the complicated matter of how best to use Wes Hoolahan. It is obvious the Norwich star helps Ireland play better as a team with his invention and willingness to constantly show for the ball.

However, at 35, expecting Hoolahan to play twice in such a short space of time is a big ask. The more likely scenario is that he is reserved for one specific match or planned as an impact sub for both games.

The tougher match to win is the Wales encounter, so Martin O’Neill would arguably be best served retaining the Dubliner’s services for that fixture. However, at times, O’Neill has been reluctant to play Hoolahan away from home in particular – he did not make an appearance in Serbia or Georgia, while he was used sparingly on the road in Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign also.

Hoolahan was influential, setting up two of the goals in Ireland’s win over Moldova last year, so O’Neill may regard the reverse fixture, rather than Cardiff clash, as the perfect occasion to let the former Shels player loose.

The extent of Harry Arter’s involvement is another intriguing talking point. Arter was poor in Ireland’s 1-1 draw against Georgia and was dropped for the Serbia game. The fact that the player has been carrying a knock in recent days further complicates matters.

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Nevertheless, Arter is a good player who does not does not deserve to be judged unequivocally on one game. Along with Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy, he is the only Irish central midfielder currently playing at Premier League level.

That said, the slight doubts in relation to his fitness in recent days (he missed Bournemouth’s 0-0 draw with Leicester last weekend) may mean Martin O’Neill opts to save him for the Wales game rather than risking him against the Moldovans, with David Meyler proving against Serbia that he is a more than capable deputy for the 27-year-old.

Jeff Hendrick, meanwhile, has been in encouraging form since returning from injury, scoring the winner as Burnley defeated Everton at the weekend.

At international level, the Dublin-born midfielder has struggled to recapture the kind of form he showed at Euro 2016, though his absence was felt for the Serbia and Georgia games, which he missed through injury.

McCarthy, on the other hand, seems unlikely to figure, given his lack of game time at Everton. Roy Keane revealed on Tuesday that the Toffees star was only doing “70%” of the training.

Hendrick, though, is a naturally fit, physically strong player, and so would likely be more than up to the task of playing both games at international level.

Goal difference could come into play in determining Ireland’s fate and as much as there is no room for complacency at the Aviva tomorrow, the fixture is likely Ireland’s best hope of improving their scoring tally, against a Moldovan side almost certain to finish bottom of the group and with little to play for.

With that in mind, Martin O’Neill would be wise to put as many goal threats in the team as possible, so current fringe players such as Conor Hourihane, Sean Maguire, Aiden McGeady and Daryl Murphy (who has six goals to his name in the Championship this season) could get some game time either from the start or off the bench, while Scott Hogan will be hoping to bring his Brentford (21 goals in 33 appearances) rather than Aston Villa form (0 Championship goals in 10 appearances this season) into the set-up.

That said, O’Neill may be inclined to opt for a more experienced line-up, given how high the stakes are, though he hasn’t been afraid to make bold decisions in the past — handing competitive debuts to Shane Duffy and Kevin Long against Italy in the Euros and Austria last June respectively are two such examples.

On the other hand, at the very least, the goalkeeper and back four should remain relatively consistent for both games. The same players that lined out against Georgia and Serbia — Darren Randolph, Cyrus Christie, Stephen Ward, Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy — are expected to be given the nod again.

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Paul Fennessy

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