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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 18 April 2021

The strangely subdued build-up to Ireland's key qualifier

Plus, we assess the omission of Shane Long and how big a gamble it could prove to be.

The Irish team pictured training during the week.
The Irish team pictured training during the week.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. The strangely subdued build-up to a key qualifier

MOST PEOPLE WOULD agree that tonight represents Ireland’s most important match in almost two years — since the World Cup play-off at home to Denmark in November 2017.

Yet the build-up has been strangely subdued ahead of this vital game. The buzz that often greeted big qualifiers in the past has seemed largely absent. A number of factors could explain the situation.

It is a huge sporting week. The All-Ireland SFC final and Joe Schmidt’s naming of the Irish Rugby World Cup squad were always going to dominate headlines. 

There is also the fact that the build-up has been largely routine. There has been no WhatsApp controversy or sensational pre-match story to get people talking (unless, of course, you count Roy Keane’s controversial comments last night).

It also seems fair to suggest that the lingering effects of the various FAI controversies remain palpable. Mick McCarthy or the players cannot be blamed for that, but the two are still inextricably linked, as was evident last Match, when a tennis-ball protest overshadowed the 1-0 win over Georgia.

There is still a deep scepticism among the public about how football in this country is being run, and plenty of work is required both on and off the field to eradicate these justifiably negative perceptions.

And finally, there is the football itself. The Georgia victory suggested McCarthy had made the Irish team better to watch, in contrast with the persistent drudgery increasingly evident towards the end of the O’Neill era.

The wins over Gibraltar, and the draw with Denmark, however, were much more of a slog.

Switzerland, while they don’t have as many high-profile players as some of the top nations, are by most measures one of the best teams in Europe. 

Vladimir Petković’s side are currently 11th in the Fifa rankings. They recently reached the semi-finals of the Nations League. And they have qualified for seven of the last eight major tournaments (Ireland have reached just two in that period).

Consequently, while the Irish side will be hopeful of a positive result, and at the very least of emulating the point they secured against Denmark in Copenhagen, they are undeniably up against a better set of players and will likely have to go long periods without the ball.

That is not to write off the Boys in Green though — many of the current squad members were involved in victories against Germany, Italy and Austria among others.

But what seems without doubt is that, regardless of the outcome, it won’t be a pretty spectacle from an Irish perspective.

With most of this country’s football audience accustomed to watching some of the best sides in the world — Liverpool and Manchester City — playing on a regular basis, the national team’s style and approach will inevitably pale in comparison. Surely. many people’s love affair with the Premier League and the high expectations it instils in some fans is another sad but inescapable factor that is impacting on levels of interest for tonight’s crucial game.

2. Shane Long’s absence a gamble?

preston-north-end-v-southampton-pre-season-friendly-deepdale Shane Long has been omitted from the latest Ireland squad. Source: Dave Howarth

For his latest squad, Mick McCarthy made the somewhat controversial decision to omit Shane Long.

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The reason for the decision, he says, is Long’s lack of game time at Southampton. And it is a fair criticism. The Tipperary native has appeared just twice for the Saints, both times off the bench, in the EFL Cup and Premier League respectively.

However, the same could be said of others who are in the squad. Conor Hourihane has started just one Premier League game this season. Jeff Hendrick has a single substitute appearance to his name in the top flight. Kevin Long has only appeared in the League Cup for Burnley. And Callum O’Dowda has just one Championship start under his belt, while Cyrus Christie has appeared just twice off the bench for Fulham. So Long might feel he has been somewhat harshly treated by comparison.

Moreover, if Ireland are 1-0 up and David McGoldrick picks up an injury with half an hour remaining, an attacker with 82 caps would be a useful option to have in reserve. Instead, should that issue arise, McCarthy will probably have to rely on one of the inexperienced duo of Scott Hogan (3 caps) and James Collins (0 caps).

The decision could pay off. Unlike Long, both the selected alternative options in attack have been playing regularly and scoring at club level, with five goals between them this season.

However, it is a gamble that will inevitably be used as a criticism against the manager should the situation go awry tonight.

3. A draw the most likely outcome?

Mick McCarthy suggested during the week that he would take a point from this game.

“They’re a good side, but we’re not setting up to get a draw,” he added. “We’re going to try to win. But if it turns out we end up with a point, I’ll be happy at not being beaten.” 

The Boys in Green were renowned for their fantastic home record during McCarthy’s first spell as manager, with the loss to Switzerland in his final game in charge the only competitive defeat he has suffered in his coaching career on Irish turf.

You get the sense though, that it will be an evening for patience from the Irish fans, and the game will pan out in a relatively similar fashion to their away qualifier with Denmark last June, where the visitors were dominated for large periods of the game, but scraped a point ultimately. 

That said, Switzerland are by no means draw specialists. In the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, they won nine out of 10 qualifiers, losing their other match to Portugal. In their subsequent play-off against Northern Ireland, they were the better team amid a 1-0 victory at Windsor Park, even if the penalty that won them the game was highly contentious. The second leg was a different story, as they were given a few scares, before earning the 0-0 draw needed to qualify.

They have drawn once already in their two games played in these qualifiers, though that was of a more cavalier nature than the match against the North — they took a 3-0 lead at home to Denmark, but three goals conceded from the 84th minute onwards left the frustrated hosts having to settle for a point.

Head coach Vladimir Petković said in the team’s Thursday press conference that his side will be going for the three points, and recent history would suggest he is not bluffing.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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