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Dublin: 14 °C Wednesday 14 November, 2018
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Why a loss tonight could have a big impact on Ireland's hopes of playing in Dublin at Euro 2020

Martin O’Neill’s men face Wales at the Aviva Stadium knowing the result could have crucial long-term implications.

Ireland players train ahead of tonight's match with Wales.
Ireland players train ahead of tonight's match with Wales.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THERE ARE A number of recurring themes in Martin O’Neill press conferences.

Normally without fail, the following topics tend to be brought up: Ireland’s lack of technical ability, the squad’s admirable spirit and love of playing for their country, the absence of a natural goalscorer, several individuals not featuring regularly for their clubs, the merits of whatever team the Boys in Green happen to be playing against in the game in question and the importance of not looking too far ahead to the next match.

As Ireland prepare to face Wales at the Aviva Stadium tonight (kick off: 7.45pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event from 7pm), it seems pertinent to ask whether this continual pre-match negativity is impacting on the players.

There is no doubt that all the points being made are true, but to consistently bring them up is unlikely to help the team’s morale or confidence.

Certainly, on Saturday, Ireland played like a team who were all too aware that their opponents were far more talented and technically superior.

But instead of trying to compete and press their opponents, the Irish team produced one of their most docile performances of recent memory.

Martin O’Neill’s side defended well and worked hard off the ball, but while the Irish boss tried to argue on Monday that he had selected an attacking starting XI, the hosts played like a side intent on not losing as opposed to winning.

In Cyrus Christie, Ireland had a makeshift midfielder whose main job seemed to be to run as hard as possible and disrupt the Danes, as well as offering cover to the inexperienced Matt Doherty, who had been given the task of keeping the dangerous Pione Sisto quiet.

A player who has not played in the middle of the field since he was “about 14″ and who only received confirmation of his new role shortly before kick-off was never going to open up a side of Denmark’s calibre or add much in an attacking sense.

In the second half, another strong runner with limited technical ability, James McClean, was shoehorned into central midfield to accommodate the introduction of Enda Stevens at left wing-back. Natural midfielders, such as Shaun Williams, who impressed against Wales last month, must have been feeling frustrated on the bench.

Callum O'Dowda 15/10/2018 Callum O'Dowda will miss tonight's match after feeling unwell and coming off at half-time during the Denmark game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Similarly, the game highlighted why Shane Long’s goalscoring record at international level (17 goals in 83 caps) is underwhelming — for all his flaws as a footballer, the Tipperary native spent most of the match running the channels and holding the ball up while waiting for support. Ireland seldom control games and so Long rarely receives the ball in the opposition penalty area, let alone being presented with a clear goalscoring opportunity.

All the noises being made in the pre-match press conference suggested Ireland were set to persist with the 3-5-2 formation for the third successive game. And like all new systems, it is a work in progress.

“I think we are still possibly learning the system, to get it to exactly how we want, but with the last two performances, we have shown we are moving in the right direction,” Richard Keogh said on Monday.

Against Denmark, Ireland looked slightly more comfortable as the game progressed. The half-time introduction of Stevens gave the team a better balance on the left, while Jeff Hendrick had more of an impact when withdrawn from the number 10 position to a deeper midfield role. Similarly, Callum Robinson was able to link up the play and provide more attacking threat in the 25 minutes he had on the pitch than the Burnley star managed in the previous 65.

Particularly given the enforced absence through injury of Callum O’Dowda, it would be no surprise to see Ireland line up against Wales from the outset similarly to how they finished the game against Åge Hareide’s men.

Given the boost he provided in his cameo at the weekend, Robinson seems an obvious choice to start, with O’Neill on Monday acknowledging the difference the Preston star made in Ireland’s most recent game.

What I thought on Callum Robinson was that he gave us extra energy, gave us some impetus, took on a couple of players,” the Irish boss said yesterday.

The Boys in Green certainly need inspiration from somewhere. A loss this evening would ensure they cannot finish top of their Nations League group, while a draw means a win would be needed in Denmark as well as the hope that other results go their way to avoid relegation.

The latter outcome would be bad news in the long-term too. The team’s next two results will have an impact on their seeding for Euro 2020 qualifying.

In order to be second rather than third seeds in the upcoming draw, the Boys in Green will need to be between 11 and 20 in the overall Nations League rankings. They are currently 22nd, and finishing bottom of their group, which defeat to Wales will practically guarantee, would consign them to this gloomy fate.

All of which makes it more likely that when the European Championships come to Dublin for four of the tournament’s 51 games, the Irish players will be watching on in frustration from their sofas.

Gareth Bale scores his sides second goal Gareth Bale, who scored amid an influential display the last time the sides met, has been ruled out of tonight's match with a groin injury. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With star man Christian Eriksen absent, the Denmark match felt like a missed opportunity even if it was a marked improvement from last year’s 5-1 loss to the same opposition in a World Cup play-off.

Similarly, it feels as if Ireland are playing Wales at a good time, with key players, including Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ethan Ampadu, absent.

The abiding wish is that the hosts will capitalise on their rivals’ misfortune and seize the initiative with a sterling performance. In reality though, a scrappy 1-0 win more akin to when the sides met in Cardiff last year might be the best the Irish fans can hope for.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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