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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 22 November, 2019

Swiss problems and Shaqiri absence offers Ireland golden chance to seal crucial win

Mick McCarthy’s previous reign ended in rancour against Switzerland, but the current era may get its signature win tonight.

Mick McCarthy.
Mick McCarthy.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

WE’VE BEEN AT it for months – dangling threads from Mick McCarthy’s first reign in the hope he’ll claw at it and unspool a couple of neat yarns of redemption or revenge.

He has steadfastly resisted, saying what happened back then is of no relevance now. 

Tonight’s opponents have the most obvious lineage to McCarthy’s first stint. It was Switzerland who inflicted his only home qualifier defeat, but that stat was lost amid the poison in the air: amid chants of “Keano, Keano”, Ireland were booed off and McCarthy didn’t return for 17 years. 

Thomas Butler played that night, and while McCarthy says lost days aren’t relevant to those ahead, he did display a trait in the dressing room post-game that still informs his work today. 

“Everyone’s head was down, everyone’s”, Butler told The42. ”There wasn’t a sound from any of the players. Nobody came in swearing and kicking doors, it was just a subdued atmosphere.

“Then Mick came in and began talking, ‘We could have nicked something if we had taken our chances, but we probably weren’t good enough on the day’, and then he said, ‘Look, get showered, and you’re probably going to walk out into a storm of reporters baying for my head, but I’ll deal with them.

“Mick took the hits for us from the press. He didn’t throw any of us under the bus and said ‘these lads were terrible’, when he did get the questions he took them on the chin for everyone. 

“From a character point of view as a manager, he protected us then, even when he knew he was probably going to get sacked.”

mick-mccarthy-16102002-digital Mick McCarthy during the game against Switzerland in 2002. Source: INPHO

McCarthy sticks by his players, and that virtue will likely be seen in his team selection for tonight’s game.

“I am loyal to people”, McCarthy said on Monday, “certainly to the ones who perform when they turn out and they play.” 

McCarthy is highly unlikely to change the back five, while Glenn Whelan has picked up enough minutes at Hearts recently to justify his inclusion. While his defensive traits are his most renowned, his passing is often quick and helps Ireland play with slightly more aggression, as was seen in the tennis ball-interrupted game with Georgia in March. 

Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick will probably play in the midfield trio. Although Hendrick has all of 10 minutes of Premier League action this season, McCarthy says his Cup appearance and natural athleticism means he will be ready if called upon. 

James McClean and David McGoldrick will likely continue, with Robbie Brady’s injury opening up a spot on the right of the front three. Callum Robinson is most likely to snaffle it, provided he can overcome the thigh niggle that kept him out of training yesterday. 

The team’s familiarity is a virtue, according to their manager. 

Interestingly enough, they’ve got a squad and there’s one player who’s not there that everyone wants to talk about, which is the norm. We’ve not got that. We’ve a settled approach to the game. We know what we’re about, we know what we have got to do; no upheavals, no upsets.

The player everyone wants to talk about is Xherdan Shaqiri. Taking him out of the Swiss attack doesn’t exactly lobotomise them, but it does make them more predictable. 

Shaqiri says he wants to stay at Liverpool to try and prise himself a spot in the team, which looks highly unlikely if Mane, Salah and Firmino all remain fit. 

There are some suggestions in Switzerland that outside noise may have contributed to his decision to stay away – ever since celebrating his 2018 World Cup goal against Serbia by mimicking with his hands a pro-Kosovo emblem, Shaqiri has been subject of commentary pondering exactly how committed he is to Switzerland. 

fifa-world-cup-2018-russia-group-e-serbia-v-switzerland-at-kaliningrad-stadium Shaqiri's controversial celebration against Serbia. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Shaqiri was born in Kosovo, has worn boots bearing a Swiss flag and a Kosovan flag, and when overlooked for the captaincy at Euro 2016, caused ructions by hinting at a transfer, saying, “What if the coach of Kosovo wants me as the captain? Of course, I am thinking about it then.” 

Swiss coach Vladimir Petkovic has problems beyond Shaqiri’s absence. He is under some pressure from Swiss media, heightened by the chucking away of a three-goal lead at home to Denmark and changes elsewhere. The Swiss FA elected a new president, Dominique Blanc, in May, after Peter Gilliéron held the position for 10 years.

Petkovic has been in charge of the national team since 2014, and some elements of the media would like to see the winds of change to sweep further. Hence losing a three-goal lead with six minutes remaining against the Danes put him under pressure, showing the kind of set-piece frailty that Shane Duffy can wantonly punish.

With Shaqiri absent, the Swiss are likely to discard their 4-3-3 in favour of a 3-5-2 formation, with Granit Xhaka an integral player in midfield. 

Striker Haris Seferovic caught fire for Benfica last season, scoring 23 goals in 29 league games, and scored a hat-trick in Switzerland’s remarkable 5-2 Nations League win over Belgium last November. They will also be a threat on set pieces, as the delivery from Ricardo Rodríguez of AC Milan should be generally outstanding

Switzerland have been reliable during McCarthy’s exile – they only failed to qualify for one major tournament in that time – and reached the semi-finals of the Uefa Nations League last season, a competition in which Ireland were risibly relegated. 

Ireland have a six-point buffer over Switzerland in Group D, but that is skewed by the schedule: the Swiss have two games in hand and have yet to play Gibraltar at all.

McCarthy admitted he would take a draw tonight, but if they are to qualify, Ireland will have to beat either Denmark or Switzerland at some point. 

Given Switzerland arrive in Dublin shorn of their talisman – tonight offers McCarthy a major chance to really prove that past miseries do not dictate the future. 

Possible Republic of Ireland XI (4-3-3): Darren Randolph; Seamus Coleman, Richard Keogh, Shane Duffy, Enda Stevens; Glenn Whelan, Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick; Callum Robinson, David McGoldrick, James McClean 

Possible Switzerland XI (3-5-2): Yann Sommer; Kevin Mbabu; Fabian Schar; Manuel Akanji, Nico Elvedi; Denis Zakaria, Granit Xhaka, Remo Freuler; Ricardo Rodriguez; Breel Embolo, Haris Seferović

On TV: RTÉ Two 7pm; Sky Sports Main Event 7.30pm 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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