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The 5 changes Martin O'Neill needs to make for the Italy match

Few if any of Ireland’s players justified their starting spot in the Belgium game.

Republic of Ireland's Aiden McGeady waits to come on as a substitute as Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill (right) looks on during the Belgium game.
Republic of Ireland's Aiden McGeady waits to come on as a substitute as Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill (right) looks on during the Belgium game.

Paul Fennessy reports from Versailles

MARTIN O’NEILL HAS been accused in the past of being a ‘conservative’ coach by his critics, but now seems like a more opportune time than ever to shed that tag.

So far during O’Neill’s reign, there have been a number of untouchables — players who will inevitably be selected if fully fit. To date, the list of the manager’s favourites would include John O’Shea, Seamus Coleman, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and Jon Walters. Moreover, while Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick didn’t begin the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign as automatic starters, both have seemingly since become indispensable in the eyes of Ireland’s manager.

The Belgium game was only Ireland’s third competitive loss under O’Neill (Scotland and Poland being the others), but comfortably their most resounding defeat since his reign began.

Yet with the energy-sapping intensity of the tournament as well as the poor Belgian performance in mind, the time feels right for O’Neill to rattle a few cages in terms of selection.

While the 64-year-old coach may have to upset certain individuals, there is no room for sentiment in football. Northern Irish boss Michael O’Neill showed that required ruthlessness the other night when he dropped five players, including striker Kyle Lafferty, who starred in the qualifying campaign, following the 1-0 opening defeat by Poland. Yet such bravery was rewarded as the North secured their first-ever European Championships victory in impressive fashion at the expense of Ukraine.

Similarly, Belgian coach Marc Wilmots got the desired reaction by dropping three important team members — Radja Nainggolan, Laurent Ciman and Dries Mertens — ahead of the Ireland game.

Consequently, by leaving out big-name players, O’Neill will be sending a message to his team — no one’s place is completely safe. The performances against Belgium and in the second half against Sweden were unacceptable. The players who stuttered in Saint-Denis had to opportunity to make up for it in Bordeaux, but in the end, they patently failed to do so. Certain squad members outside of the first XI therefore surely deserve a chance now.

For the Belgian game, O’Neill made just one enforced change coupled with a tactical shift, as Stephen Ward replaced Jon Walters in the starting XI.

It didn’t really work, as all three goals came down Ward’s left-hand side and he failed to give much for Ireland going forward — though the Burnley man was far from the only ineffectual performer on the day.

Moreover, the switch from a diamond to a 4-4-1-1 didn’t really work either, as both Hoolahan and Long looked isolated for the most part and failed to influence the game as a result, with Ireland’s attack virtually non-existent — as emphasised by their failure to hit the target with any of the 10 shots they produced.

Not all 11 players will be changed, of course — the likes of Darren Randolph and Seamus Coleman were among the least obvious culprits in the side so should probably be retained. The defence and midfield in general, however, both look in need of a shake-up.

It’s important to keep in mind that Ireland need to score against an Italian side that will be extremely difficult to break down, even if some of their Juventus stars are missing from the backline on the day.

This factor has proved problematic in the recent past — the Boys in Green averaged just a goal a game in their Euro 2016 qualifying group (excluding matches against Gibraltar), while they have failed to even emulate this modest tally in France so far. Aiden McGeady — a footballer that the great Lionel Messi once spoke highly of — is not the most popular player among Irish fans and he tends to be very erratic at times.

But despite a poor season at club level, McGeady remains one of Ireland’s most creative players, capable of the sort of skill and technique that so many of the Irish side patently lack. In the Euro 2012 qualifiers, the winger made more assists than any other Irish player, and at 30, there’s no obvious reason why he can’t reproduce that form in France.

However, since those influential displays a little over four years ago, a series of injuries and a loss of form have reduced McGeady to being a bit-part player for his country. There is no doubt that starting the Glasgow-born star would be a risk, given the defensive deficiencies he showed in the recent friendly loss against Belarus, which led to some well-documented criticism from assistant boss Roy Keane. But the time is right for O’Neill to think in bold terms, as Ireland cannot afford another negative display against the Azzurri.

In addition, in a game Ireland need to win, there isn’t much point playing two defensive midfielders, as O’Neill usually does with Whelan and McCarthy. Furthermore, both players looked in need of a rest following disappointing, sluggish displays against Belgium, while Jeff Hendrick arguably deserves a chance to feature in his favoured central role, rather than as a left-sided midfielder, where he has played throughout the tournament so far.

Robbie Brady should stay in midfield, where he is most effective, while Stephen Quinn, an intelligent player who is defensively sound and comfortable on the ball, would also add a degree of composure and invention that’s currently missing in the middle of the park.

In attack, assuming Hoolahan is fit to play and Walters isn’t, the Norwich man could form a formidable attacking line with Aiden McGeady and Shane Long.

At the back, after Ward’s ineffectual display, Derby’s Young Player of the Year Cyrus Christie, who is primarily a right-back but is comfortable playing on the left, should be given a chance to impress.

Ciaran Clark has been partially at fault for at least two of the goals Ireland conceded and John O’Shea struggled to deal with the pace and power of Romelu Lukaku on Saturday.

Like O’Shea, Richard Keogh is a leader, but he is considerably younger and in much better form than the Sunderland man — the Rams captain was named Derby’s Player of the Year for his performances this season.

And in 24-year-old Blackburn centre-back Shane Duffy, Ireland have a player who has shown in the warm-up games that he is more than capable of competing at a high level. Again, throwing him in in such a vital game would be somewhat of a risk, but O’Shea and Clark have not done enough to keep him out of the side.

It’s been continually proven in this tournament that big changes can benefit teams, and few current Ireland starters could complain about being left out on the back of their performance in Bordeaux.

The line-up below is very attack-minded, but then Ireland will need plenty of creative players on the field in order to break down the stubborn Italian rearguard.

Suggested starting XI to face Italy (five changes from the Belgium game):

Randolph

Coleman Keogh Duffy Christie

Quinn Hendrick Brady

Hoolahan McGeady

Long

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O’Neill’s poor in-game management ensures lack of faith ahead of crunch Italian clash>

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Paul Fennessy

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