Monday 26 September 2016

Daniel McDonnell: Ireland boss in search of cure for scoring ailment

'Our problem is not getting enough goals'

Published 09/06/2015 | 02:30

Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill look on during training in Malahide, alongside masseur John Flynn
Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill look on during training in Malahide, alongside masseur John Flynn

All the pressure is on Ireland heading into their decisive weekend date with Scotland, and Martin O'Neill has admitted that his team's struggles in front of goal are in danger of stiffening the task.

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The success or otherwise of this summer gathering will be determined by how O'Neill's charges fare in Saturday's encounter with Gordon Strachan's troops at the Aviva.

Ireland have warmed up for the encounter with a pair of scoreless draws against Northern Ireland and England and their manager has acknowledged that his group need to improve in the final third if they are to achieve their ambitions to make France next summer.

Leaving aside Aiden McGeady's inspired brace in Georgia and the stroll past hapless Gibraltar, Ireland have lacked incision in general play during their meetings with qualification rivals.

Late goals forged from a quickly-taken throw and a set-piece rescued a point from the games with Germany and Poland, while O'Neill's men fired blanks in the costly defeat to the Scots last November which has put the return clash firmly under the heading of 'must-win' - even though the Derryman has toned down his language in that regard.

Essential

He said three points was essential in the immediate aftermath of the March draw with the Poles, yet he now insists that there could be further drama regardless of how the Celtic derby winds up.

In simple terms, however, it is clear that Ireland's qualification hopes will go up in smoke if they continue to lack a genuine cutting edge.

Robbie Keane is due in Dublin this afternoon after coming through 90 minutes with LA Galaxy at the weekend, yet an injury-interrupted run could mean that he is restricted to the role of supersub. Certainly, O'Neill has strongly indicated that he will start without a 'natural' goalscorer on the park.

"Our problem is not getting enough goals," says O'Neill bluntly. "It's nice to have natural goalscorers in the team and if we don't possess them ... Robbie is coming back but if we didn't have them, we have to find some other way to win the game.

"I think it would be nice to get in front in a game rather than chasing matches as we've been doing just recently. I think we're capable of keeping sides out relatively okay although there's always a chance of conceding a goal in the game as we did against Scotland.

"Historically speaking, I don't think that we have scored that many goals. When I use 'we' there in terms of the Republic of Ireland, we had similar problems at Northern Ireland as well throughout our time. Our success was built strongly on defence.

"You see the Champions League final there where you know that you have got three players there capable of scoring a goal - it's a lovely feeling to have when you have got world-class players being able to take defences apart. If you haven't got that, then you have to use other methods."

That could be interpreted as the direct route and that was the primary strategy in the second half of the English match with Daryl Murphy and Shane Long providing a physical presence. Murphy was duly replaced by Jonathan Walters who was selected alongside Long in Glasgow.

Wes Hoolahan was unavailable for that fixture and everything O'Neill has said over the past week points to the Norwich playmaker starting from the outset this time around.

"Wes did some training today which is good," continued the 63-year-old, speaking at Gannon Park.

""I was hoping to get him on the field of play against England for 15 minutes but he has played as many games as anyone."

A draw would have been an excellent result in Scotland with the visitors to content to soak up pressure - a plan that backfired when they switched off for a short corner. The green shirts have to take the initiative in the return and that's where Hoolahan's ability to retain possession will be vital.

"In Scotland, the onus was on them to maybe attack a little bit more than us," he elaborated. "The pressure now in that sense has reversed.

"At the moment, you would have to say that there is more on us to win to redress the situation and put ourselves right into it. Really, that's it.

"While it's far from over - there will be plenty of twists and turns - you would have to say that Scotland would gain a big advantage if they went and took three points from us."

The question is if this group are able to cope with that burden. Ireland's poor home record at the Aviva has become a laboured talking point, but it still stands. This generation is yet to deliver a defining Dublin moment.

"There are certain players who thrive on pressure," O'Neill elaborated. "Nowadays, more so than ever before, you can turn what you think is a relatively easy enough situation into severe pressure within a period of days, never mind anything else.

"It's up to us to win the game, regardless of the pressure. We have to go and try and win it and the best way to deal with it is to come out, be positive and wrest the initiative from Scotland. It's as simple as that, it really is."

The frenetic nature of the Celtic Park affair breeds the suspicion that another tense affair lies in store. England boss Roy Hodgson predicted a ding-dong battle. O'Neill didn't argue with that view.

"I would imagine that there's not much between the teams," he asserted, "the (Shaun Maloney) goal they scored from the set-piece was obviously a blow to us.

"We could have scored about seven minutes before that when their goalkeeper made a great save and, on little things like that there, the game might hinge.

"But I reckon again there might not be much in it and it's up to us to (a) create some chances and (b) take them."

It sounds easy on paper but, in practice, Ireland have specialised in making it difficult. This would be the ideal moment to develop a new personality.

Irish Independent

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