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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

Is Keane set for last competitive game at the Aviva and more Ireland-Bosnia talking points?

Also, will Džeko be fit and can the Irish team keep hold of the ball.

Robbie Keane has scored 67 goals in 143 appearances for Ireland.
Robbie Keane has scored 67 goals in 143 appearances for Ireland.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. Will Ireland be true to O’Neill’s word?

ROBBIE BRADY’S MOMENT of brilliance aside, Ireland scarcely looked like scoring against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Friday night (and that wasn’t down to the fog).

For the most part, it was a solid backs-to-the-wall performance from the Boys in Green, with Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy struggling to get into the game up front.

And these attacking limitations have become a recurring theme for Ireland — of the side that started last week’s first-leg, only Hoolahan had scored over the course of this qualifying campaign. In addition, discounting games against Gibraltar, Ireland still have failed to score twice in a competitive fixture since 7 September 2014 in Georgia.

And in spite of the fact that a 0-0 draw will send the team to France next summer, O’Neill has emphasised the importance of attacking the opposition this evening.

There’s a difference between saying it and actually doing it, of course, but while the end product hasn’t always been exemplary, the willingness has invariably been there — anyone who remembers the starting XI that O’Neill named against world champions Germany last month certainly can’t accuse the Derry native of undue conservatism.

2. Who comes out of the team for Jon Walters?

Stoke’s Jon Walters has become one of Ireland’s key figures during this campaign — aside from the home match against Gibraltar, he started every game during the group stages, and only missed Friday’s encounter through suspension.

Consequently, Walters seems all but certain to start at the Aviva tonight. But who the Stoke man replaces in the team has become a subject of much speculation — Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady even made a bet on the topic.

Daryl Murphy is a doubt for the game, so O’Neill may be tempted to make a straight swap with Walters, though the 32-year-old attacker has not once led the line on his own during this campaign, and there may be a good reason for that.

The other obvious player whose place is vulnerable is Wes Hoolahan, though the Irish boss will be reluctant to sacrifice the Norwich star’s trickery and technical ability, even if it means playing two games in four days for the ex-Shels man.

Finally, if he wants to be really ambitious, O’Neill could leave out one of his holding midfielders — Ireland got on pretty well without Glenn Whelan against Germany, though his seniority means the less experienced Jeff Hendrick may have to make way instead.

3. Will Edin Džeko be fit?

Bosnia and Herzegovina v Republic of Ireland - UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying - Play-off - First Leg - Stadion Bilino Polje Džeko scored Bosnia's equaliser in the first leg. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

On Friday night, Edin Džeko scored his 45th goal in 75 appearances at international level and reinvigorated Bosnian hopes with five minutes of the first leg remaining.

It confirmed Džeko’s return to form, with the striker also back on target for Roma recently, after an injury-interrupted start to the season.

Yet reports emerging from the Bosnian camp yesterday indicated that Džeko — Bosnia’s captain and key player — was a doubt for tonight’s game at the Aviva.

Although Hertha’s Vedad Ibišević and Cesena’s Milan Đurić are both able deputies, there is no doubt that losing their talisman would be a significant blow to Bosnia’s hopes of progression.

4. Can Ireland keep the ball?

Many observers have marvaled at how a team, such as Ireland, who are so poor in possession, are on the brink of Euro 2016 qualification.

The current side are probably even worse than the Irish team that reached the last Euros — at least Trap had Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and a much younger Robbie Keane to call upon.

On Friday, Bosnia looked superior to Ireland for much of the match. They had 63% of the possession overall and spent much of the game camped in Ireland’s half, struggling to break down their stubborn opponents — a scenario that is more than a touch familiar to anyone who has watched this Irish side regularly over the course of their campaign.

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In one 30-second passage of play, Glenn Whelan gave the ball away cheaply twice in quick succession, epitomising Ireland’s woes on the ball.

More or less everyone seems to be suggesting that the Boys in Green need to be better on the ball to secure a positive result this evening, but it would feel fitting on many levels if Ireland got to France on the back of an unwatchable 0-0 draw.

5. Has Robbie Keane played his last competitive game at the Aviva?

With 67 goals in 143 appearances, few people at this stage would argue against Robbie Keane being Ireland’s greatest ever striker.

Over the years, Keane has provided Irish fans with several standout memories, but has the LA Galaxy star played his last competitive fixture on home soil?

Asked about his future recently, the 35-year-old responded in defiant fashion, pointing to 20 goals in 24 appearances for LA Galaxy this season.

But notwithstanding a couple more goals to add to his incredible overall tally, against Gibraltar, Keane has all too often resembled a spent force during this latest qualifying campaign — a stark contrast to the energetic 17-year-old who burst onto the international scene in the Czech Republic on 25 March, 1998.

By the time the next World Cup rolls around, Keane will be a few days away from his 38th birthday — a lot to ask of any player and particularly an out-and-out striker.

Of course, he can’t start publicly dropping hints about retirement as Ireland prepare for vital games, but with the veteran striker no longer a regular in the side, his impeccable dedication to the Irish cause will be severely tested no matter what happens in this evening’s game.

Moreover, if the Boys in Green fail to qualify tonight, it may even bring a sad and immediate end to one of Irish football’s most illustrious careers.

Watch ‘Rockmount’, the award-winning Irish short film about a young Roy Keane>

Will this be the Ireland team for tonight’s Euro 2016 decider against Bosnia?>

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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