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Stage is set for an enthralling night and the Ireland-Wales pre-match talking points

Can the Boys in Green deal with the absentees? Will James McCarthy get the nod? Would Wales be happy with a draw…?

Shane Long and Ashley Williams fight for possession when the nations met in a 2013 friendly.
Shane Long and Ashley Williams fight for possession when the nations met in a 2013 friendly.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

1. Feels like a proper international fixture

IT’S FOUR LONG months since James McClean rattled the net — and the Austrian team — on that fateful night in Vienna.

A courageous 1-0 victory at the Ernst-Happel Stadium put Ireland in the unfamiliar position of group leaders heading into 2017 and gives them a real fighting chance of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time in 16 years.

With just four matches played from a total of ten, the campaign hasn’t yet reached the midway point, but the visit of Wales to a sold-out Aviva Stadium is undoubtedly a pivotal fixture.

After their exploits at Euro 2016, Chris Coleman’s men are Group D’s highest-ranked nation (12th in the world) and they come to Dublin in need of a positive result having drawn their last three consecutive games.

Qualification won’t be won or lost here tonight but this does have the feel of a genuinely massive occasion.

2. Can Ireland cope with the injuries?

You could nearly field an entire team of Ireland squad members who will miss this evening’s game through injury or suspension. Martin O’Neill suggested during the week that it’s the worst scenario he’s had to deal with since taking over the job three-and-a-half years ago.

And while it’s difficult to argue that the team wouldn’t be stronger with the likes of Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and Harry Arter in it, the Ireland boss has still got plenty of experience at his disposal. In fact, he could potentially name 10 of the 11 players who started in the 2-2 draw with Serbia back in September.

I’ve already gone into the various options at length here, but one of the major decisions will centre around the fitness of midfielder James McCarthy. The Everton man trained on Wednesday and Thursday but he’s had little football in recent months due to hamstring issues. Against a formidable Welsh midfield, it could backfire spectacularly if he played at anywhere less than 100%.

3. Foolish to focus too much on Bale

All week we’ve heard Irish players and management team alike being ask the same question: “How do you stop Gareth Bale?”

Keeping one of the world’s outstanding players quiet is certainly a tall order as the Real Madrid star possesses all the qualities necessary to be the difference — as he has been so often in the past for club and country. That said, giving Bale too much attention will open up space for others to exploit.

Coleman has his team well-drilled to play to their strengths. Although they lined out in a 4-4-2 last time out (in the draw with Serbia), his preferred formation is 3-5-2 with captain Ashley Williams, James Chester and Ben Davies at centre-back. Aaron Ramsey plays ahead of the two Joes — Allen and Ledley — in midfield, while Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter are just as influential in the wing-back roles.

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Wales v Belgium - UEFA Euro 2016 - Quarter Final - Stade Pierre Mauroy The Welsh team that beat Belgium at Euro 2016. It's expected to be very similar tonight. Source: Mike Egerton

In attack, Bale is given licence to roam behind either Sam Vokes or Hal Robson-Kanu. It has worked a treat over the past couple of years — most notably in the 3-1 win over Ireland’s conquerors Belgium in France last summer.

4. An emotional night for McClean

Irish football is mourning the loss of Derry City captain Ryan McBride this week, and those present at the Aviva Stadium will be invited to pay tribute to the 27-year-old defender before kick-off and during the fifth minute.

The tragedy will have been felt by all the players, but it has been particularly difficult for James McClean, who was a former team-mate McBride. The West Brom winger travelled to Derry earlier in the week to offer his condolences to the family, and he will wear the number five shirt in honour of his late friend.

O’Neill explained yesterday that he isn’t worried about how it will affect McClean,as, the Ireland manager says, “James is an emotional player anyway”. While he may often divide opinion, McClean’s pride for the green jersey and commitment to the team is second-to-none.

5. Would a draw be a bad result?

“If you think our mindset — going into the game of football on Friday night at the Aviva — is a draw, then you are sadly mistaken. We’re here to win,” declared Ireland assistant boss Roy Keane on Tuesday.

“People are saying that it’s a must-win game for Wales, that it’s a more important game for Wales than it is for the Republic of Ireland but it’s not,” stated Wales manager Chris Coleman during his pre-match briefing.

Two very different messages from the opposing camps, but in reality, a share of the spoils wouldn’t be terrible for either side. Obviously Ireland are in a more favourable position in the table at present and one point would most likely leave them level with Serbia as long as the Serbians beat Georgia away this evening.

A draw for Wales would mean they will probably be joint-third alongside Austria, who are expected to see off Moldova.

That said, a home victory for the Boys in Green maintains their lead at the top of Group D while also giving the Welsh a mountain to climb to get back into the race for qualification.

Austria come to Dublin in June for Ireland’s next competitive match, while Wales are away to Serbia.

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About the author:

Ben Blake

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