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Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 20 April 2021

More of the same won't suffice: 5 talking points ahead of Ireland-Wales

Opportunity knocks for Martin O’Neill’s side against a severely weakened Wales team tomorrow evening.

Callum Robinson and Yussuf Poulsen Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Storm Callum

Let’s start with a positive. There was a muted atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium for Saturday’s goalless draw against Denmark until Callum Robinson entered the fray. 

High on confidence after scoring six goals in his last seven appearances in the Championship, the Preston North End attacker arrived in the 65th minute with an energetic approach that Ireland had been lacking all night.

Robinson made something positive happen each time the ball came his way. Given that the pacy 23-year-old’s instinct is to run at the opposition whenever the opportunity presents itself, he was a breath of fresh air on a night when Martin O’Neill’s side were suffocated by their own conservative tactics.

Shane Long has now failed to score in his last 10 international appearances. The Southampton striker is also an injury concern for tomorrow’s meeting with Wales. Robinson’s attributes might not be conducive to a lone striker’s role, but a dearth of attacking options in general should be enough to play him into contention for a start.

Wales v Republic of Ireland - UEFA Nations League - League B - Group 4 - Cardiff City Stadium Source: David Davies

Cardiff blues

Ireland were embarrassed by their display in the 4-1 defeat to Wales in Cardiff. On that basis, the prospect of revenge should be a significant incentive for tomorrow night’s return fixture in Dublin — although the Welsh will argue that the result represented their own measure of retribution for Ireland’s victory in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

The home side are hampered by the unavailability of players like Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Robbie Brady, but when it comes to the calibre of each team’s absentees, the balance is tipped in Ireland’s favour given the extent to which Wales have been weakened.

The squad that Ryan Giggs has brought to Dublin includes neither injured Real Madrid attacker Gareth Bale nor Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who has been ruled out due to family reasons. Two other players who started the 4-1 trouncing of Ireland in Cardiff — defender Chris Mepham and midfielder Ethan Ampadu — also miss out.

Opportunity subsequently knocks for an Ireland side who were unable to fully capitalise against a Danish team that was also robbed of its talisman, Christian Eriksen, on Saturday. The Boys in Green been gifted another stroke of good fortune ahead of this game in their bid to avoid propping up the group when it concludes next month.

Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 16.03.52 Source:

Seed capital

The inaugural Uefa Nations League has so far struggled in its efforts to resemble anything other than a series of glorified friendlies. However, the reality is that this competition is now approaching the stage where it will have genuine consequences. 

Having earned just one point from a possible six, Ireland are currently bottom of Group 4 in League B. Should they remain there by the time the group concludes, Martin O’Neill’s side will be demoted to League C. But more importantly for now, they’ll be seeded third instead of second for the Euro 2020 qualifying draw.

Denmark lead the standings on four points, while Wales are on three. Therefore, anything less than a win tomorrow night will leave Ireland requiring a victory away to the Danes on 19 November to have any chance of avoiding finishing at the foot of the table. That will also depend on the outcome of the Wales-Denmark game three days earlier.

Ireland will play two Euro 2020 games in Dublin should they qualify. For the financial benefits alone, the FAI are particularly keen to ensure that this is one tournament they don’t miss out on.

Ireland huddle before the game Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Square pegs in round holes

Martin O’Neill again experimented with a 3-5-2 formation against Denmark — or 3-5-1-1, to be precise — so it will be interesting to see if that set-up is retained for the visit of Wales.

O’Neill will argue that it was justified by keeping a clean sheet against a team who put five past them 11 months earlier, and while there’s certainly merit to the system, the Ireland boss put square pegs into several round holes by using the likes of James McClean, Cyrus Christie and Jeff Hendrick in roles where they’re not entirely comfortable.

Ireland restricted the space available to Denmark’s technically superior players by crowding their final third, but they did so at the expense of any notable attacking threat. Shane Long often cut a frustrated figure as he chased long balls that were punted speculatively into his general vicinity.

Hendrick was tasked with supporting Long when the home side were on the front foot, but given how seldom Ireland enjoyed sustained periods of possession, the Burnley man spent most of his time assisting in midfield instead of operating as a second striker.

Martin O'Neill Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The next step in the right direction 

After Saturday’s draw with Denmark, many of the Ireland players offered a similar assessment. The clean sheet was “something to build on”, according to Enda Stevens. The performance was described as “a good base for us to move forward,” by Richard Keogh. “A real step in the right direction.”

So what’s the next step from here, or is there one? Is the limit of Ireland’s ambition now to look for a draw at home to a slightly-above-average team who didn’t have their most important player on the pitch? If so, things are likely to get worse before they get any better.

A goalless draw with Denmark was certainly an improvement on Ireland’s last two competitive outings: 4-1 and 5-1 defeats to Wales and the Danes respectively. Having said that, surely the only way was up from there.

Aware that his future in the job was under scrutiny during this international window, Martin O’Neill adopted a safety-first approach geared towards stopping the rot. While the players reflected positively on the weekend’s stalemate against Denmark, several also acknowledged that it was far from perfect. The hope is that O’Neill shares that view.

Tangible proof of a desire to attack, particularly at home, should be a minimum requirement. It’s the least the supporters who part with their hard-earned cash deserve, particularly against teams like Denmark and Wales, who warrant respect but not fear. The continued lack of any evidence of an offensive blueprint is a growing concern.

Against Denmark, O’Neill set his team up to avoid another resounding defeat. An increasingly frustrated public are unlikely to afford him the luxury of playing that card again.

Patching up a puncture might keep the vehicle on the road, but replacing the wheel is only a matter of time.

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Paul Dollery

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