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Dublin: 10 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019
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'Nothing is impossible' - O'Neill primed for the biggest game of his Ireland reign

After the distractions of the England friendly and the FAI’s off-the-field controversies, the Ireland boss is fully focused on this weekend’s must-win qualifier against Scotland.

O'Neill facing the media in Malahide today.
O'Neill facing the media in Malahide today.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

ANYONE PASSING GANNON Park during Ireland’s training session this morning may have mistaken their much-depleted squad for a couple of five-a-side teams.

All those involved in yesterday’s underwhelming 0-0 draw with England at Lansdowne Road, with the exception of Paul McShane, were given the day off to take part in a recovery session in the pool, meaning just ten players laced up their boots for a light session in Malahide.

Meanwhile, captain Robbie Keane, who was given permission to remain with LA Galaxy for their 1-0 loss to Vancouver Whitecaps over the weekend, flies into Dublin today to link up with his international team-mates.

The 34-year-old striker missed seven club games with a groin injury but played 90 minutes as the MLS Cup champions saw a 29-game unbeaten run at home ended. O’Neill has received a physio report on Ireland’s all-time record goalscorer and believes he is in “decent shape”.

Daryl Murphy, David McGoldrick, Shane Long and Jon Walters were all used as strikers on Sunday but were unable to find the back of the net with Murphy coming closest on two occasions.

Long partnered Walters in the 1-0 defeat to Scotland back in November, while Wes Hoolahan started in behind Keane before Long was sprung from the bench to rescue a point in Ireland’s most recent Euro 2016 qualifier — the 1-1 draw with Poland in March.

Keane’s influence on games has waned significantly in recent years but his tally of 65 international goals speaks for itself. And, as O’Neill acknowledged today, finding players who have a knack for scoring has been an regular issue down through the years.

“Historically speaking, I don’t think that we have scored that many goals,” O’Neill said. “I use ‘we’ in terms of the Republic of Ireland but the North had similar problems throughout our time. We were built strongly on defence in that aspect and the chances that you take will hopefully be enough to win you games.

It has been an ongoing problem for a long time, hence the importance of Robbie Keane, who you would have to say has been the most natural scorer that we possessed over the years.

“Other nations suffer from the same problem and if you don’t have a natural scorer in your side, regardless of what happens and even if you create chances in the game, taking them is the big thing at the top of the game.”

Martin O'Neill Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The first fixture against England in Dublin for 20 years was always going to be accompanied by a media circus, but with those distractions now out of the way, O’Neill has five days to concentrate on what is surely the most important match of his international managerial career to-date.

At the halfway point in Group D, Ireland trail Poland, Germany and Scotland in their bid to qualify for next year’s finals in France. Third place and a play-off spot is the most realistic achievement the Boys in Green can hope for at this stage, but three points at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday are a must.

“If you were speaking to Gordon, I think we find ourselves in a pretty difficult group,” added O’Neill, who refused to be drawn on Fifa’s controvesial loan to the FAI once again.

“We are in with the world champions, who would be expected to go and win the group. Then it seems as if it’s going to be a real scramble for second place.

“Poland are very strong and there seems to be a renaissance in Scotland, which is good for Scottish football. It has been difficult but nothing is impossible yet and we are only halfway through the group.”

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Ben Blake

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