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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 9 April, 2020

Should Aaron Connolly start and more Georgia-Ireland talking points

Plus, why the Georgians should not be underestimated.

The Irish team pictured in training ahead of today's game.
The Irish team pictured in training ahead of today's game.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. Ireland two wins away from Euro 2020 qualification

TWO WINS against Georgia and Switzerland will guarantee Ireland qualification for the 2020 Euros regardless of results elsewhere. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, it is far easier said than done.

Ireland had to work hard to get a point against the Swiss at home, so achieving a better result on their travels is a big ask.

Tonight is also a big potential banana skin.

Qualifying for the Euros with a limited enough team would surely be up there with gaining promotion to the Premier League at Wolves and Sunderland, upsetting the Dutch in 2001 and all of Mick McCarthy’s other greatest managerial achievements.

Four points from two games would similarly be a creditable return and put Ireland in a strong position qualify ahead of their final game at home to Denmark in November.

Anything less though, and they would be on dangerous ground.

Yet with the team still unbeaten under McCarthy, there is a sense that the momentum is with the Boys in Green currently. Probably not since the heady days of Euro 2016 has there been a comparable level of positivity surrounding the Irish team.

2. Could Aaron Connolly be in line for a start?

aaron-connolly Aaron Connolly pictured at the Boris Paichadze Arena, Tbilisi. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It’s been an incredible few weeks for Aaron Connolly, between excelling for the U21s, scoring on his full senior debut with Brighton and getting a first proper senior call-up to the Ireland squad.

The 19-year-old Galwegian originally wasn’t selected as part of the travelling party to Tbilisi, but Ronan Curtis’ withdrawal, coupled with his stunning two-goal show against Tottenham, prompted McCarthy to perform a U-turn.

On the one hand, the idea of Connolly starting does not seem logical. How could a player who wasn’t deemed good enough for the original squad suddenly jump ahead of those that were?

But Connolly has momentum behind him. After the Spurs match, he is bound to be full of confidence.

James McClean appeared a doubt during the week, but is expected to be fit, having returned to training on Wednesday.

Consequently, the more likely place for Connolly to feature is up front rather than a wider role where he has been deployed for the U21s.

Ostensibly, Ireland’s other options up front are Scott Hogan, James Collins and Sean Maguire — the trio have one goal in 14 caps between them. 

Collins, who some are expecting to get the nod, has just over half an hour of international football under his belt. Though currently a Championship player with six goals to his name this season, he has spent the majority of his career in Leagues One and Two.

Therefore, whoever McCarthy picks up front this afternoon will be relatively experienced at this level.

Connolly may have just one full senior appearance to his name, but he has two Premier League goals — more than the other strikers in the squad combined.

The teenager may lack Collins’ physicality and presence, but that factor didn’t stop McCarthy from picking Damien Duff and Robbie Keane in attack during his first spell as Ireland manager.

Consequently, with regular forward David McGoldrick ruled out, ignoring Connolly would be just as much of a gamble as selecting him constitutes.

3. Don’t underestimate the Georgians

They may be fourth seeds in the group — a ranking justified by their collection of four points from five games including three in a home win over Gibraltar, but Ireland still cannot afford to take Georgia lightly.

They held Denmark to a 0-0 draw in September in a game they easily could have won.

And while Ireland deservedly beat them at the Aviva last March, on the last occasion the teams met in Tbilisi — September 2017 — it finished 1-1 and the then-Martin O’Neill-managed side were outplayed for large parts of the contest.

Ireland have improved since, but Georgia will argue they have too.

Vladimir Weiss indicated as much and despite the team having no realistic hope of qualifying with a top-two spot in Group D, their performances in the Nations League mean they are guaranteed a play-off spot anyway.

“Ireland are difficult opponents, but I think the time has come to be successful against them and play for the fans,” midfielder Giorgi Aburjania added during yesterday’s pre-match press conference.

Georgia’s players are not exactly household names, but that is not necessarily indicative of a lack of quality.

Spartak Moscow’s attacking midfielder Jano Ananidze was the best player on the park the last time the sides met in Georgia, with his clever passing and movement, and he is likely to pose a big threat again this afternoon. It will be essential that Glenn Whelan and the rest of Ireland’s midfield keep a close eye on the 43-times-capped 27-year-old in particular.

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Paul Fennessy

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