Wednesday 7 December 2016

James McClean may get nod up front as O'Neill puts friendly success in perspective

Positive result a bonus but Ireland manager will shuffle pack again for Slovakia encounter

Published 29/03/2016 | 02:30

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane with James McClean, left, and Cyrus Christie during squad training
Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane with James McClean, left, and Cyrus Christie during squad training
O’Neill: Reluctant to dress mutton as lamb when it comes to friendlies. Photo: Sportsfile

If you include the festival of football which was the Carling Nations Cup, tonight's game will be the 20th international friendly at the Aviva Stadium since it opened in its current guise.

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The hardcore fan might remember the little details of each encounter. Struggling? Perhaps the list of opponents will refresh the memory. Argentina, Norway, Wales, Uruguay, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Czech Republic, Bosnia, Greece, Poland, Georgia, Latvia, Serbia, Turkey, Oman, USA, England and Switzerland have all descended on Ballsbridge for non-competitive fare.

Congratulations if you can recall a stand-out moment that lingers from all those fixtures. Already, Friday's game with Switzerland is fading from the consciousness. Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane's opening night - the dismissal of the Latvians - was probably the most enthusiastic occasion of those listed.

Novelty fades over time and to be fair to O'Neill, he is reluctant to dress mutton as lamb when it comes to advertising the importance of these exercises. After all, Ireland's 14-game unbeaten run heading into Euro 2012 succeeded in nothing more than breeding delusion.

Another win against Slovakia would be a bonus, but the Ireland manager stressed in the preliminaries that it's difficult to take any outcome and link it to what could happen in June. "Tournament football, with games in quick succession, is completely different," he said. "But it's better going into a tournament on a high rather than losing games. But while we still want to win these games - and they're important in terms of co-efficient - there's an element of trial about them."

He mentioned getting through "unscathed" as one of the aims from this fixture and, while there's an injury-related definition for that word, it reflects the reality that it's only an extremely negative outcome that can have any sort of impact on the confidence levels.

Everything we know about this Irish group would suggest it's highly improbable - they have a sturdiness which has survived personnel changes. Slovakia are expected to mix regular players with a bit of experimentation too so it's hard to envisage either party suffering too much pain.

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This makes it a hard sell but O'Neill has again indicated that he will shuffle the pack. His preference for 4-4-2 on Friday was based around wanting to give Kevin Doyle a run next to Shane Long. It evidenced how Ireland can be exposed without an extra man in midfield and injuries to Doyle, Robbie Keane, Jon Walters and Daryl Murphy have cleared the path for a tactical shift that was likely to happen either way.

The manager feels that Wes Hoolahan allows Ireland to get on the ball at home and gave a strong hint that the Norwich schemer will be introduced from the outset. "He's got a good chance of starting," he said.

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is pictured with Ciaran Clark during a press conference ahead of tonight’s friendly against Slovakia at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is pictured with Ciaran Clark during a press conference ahead of tonight’s friendly against Slovakia at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

Hoolahan, who suggested over the weekend that he would have to seriously think about his Irish future in the summer, is the man that instantly springs to mind when O'Neill refers to the main area that has to improve.

"We need to be a bit more confident in possession," he said, "There was a little spell against Germany where we did exceptionally well."

A process of elimination means that Long is primed to feature up front with the eschewing of the temptation to call in an additional striker giving a pretty strong indication to Anthony Stokes, Simon Cox and any other attackers that they can go ahead and book a summer holiday. There have been games where a combination of Hoolahan's awareness and Long's speed has troubled opposition defenders.

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However, the curve ball is that James McClean could pop up in a relatively unfamiliar role at some stage.

"We can adjust things," he stressed, "James McClean has played up front before, I've seen him play for Wigan there. So, I think we can change things around anyway."

The other contender in that department is the fit-again Anthony Pilkington, who has functioned as a makeshift attacker at Cardiff.

Stephen Gleeson and Matt Doherty will be keen to get game time on this occasion but the duo were not namechecked in the pre-match conference.

Indeed, O'Neill stated that he was keen to have another look at Jonathan Hayes and Eunan O'Kane - who made their international debuts as subs against the Swiss - with one in line for a starting role. Aberdeen winger Hayes might benefit from any relocation of McClean to a central brief. It would be special for Gleeson if he got time on the pitch alongside his cousin Glenn Whelan.

Defensively, O'Neill will change things with Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy ready to sit it out. In fact, it's plausible that the back five will be completely recharged with Rob Elliot promised a start between the sticks.

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The Derryman mentioned he had six centre halves in the party and Paul McShane and Alex Pearce have a pressing need to play. Richard Keogh and John O'Shea are the more established options. Roberto Martinez and Alex Neil, the club managers of Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady, would strongly advocate a rest for their first-team regulars and they are hardly short of match practice.

"Players who have been around for the last seven or eight days; I'm sure they would like to get some time on the field," said O'Neill, a message that will encourage Cyrus Christie and Stephen Ward.

An alternative mindset will guide his thoughts for the 21st Aviva friendly - the May 27 date with Holland. Minutes on the pitch will be behind identifying and testing his best XI with a view to the specifics of France.

"I think from afar, that's the way I would be looking at it," he said.

Harry Arter may well be the only player sent out with a serious point to prove.

The FAI have eventually confirmed they will play Belarus on May 31 at Turner's Cross in a fixture that will provide a focus to their training camp down the road in Fota Island. By that juncture, O'Neill will have narrowed his squad down to 23 and, for both players and spectators, tickets will be restricted compared to this open house.

"I think there's healthy competition," continued O'Neill.

"If someone in the Dutch game that we hadn't seen much of got an opportunity, they would have to do something reasonably exceptional to make me think he deserves it.

"Things can change but the players that will be on the field of play (tonight) don't want to waste that time."

For an unlucky few, the full-time whistle will have a double meaning for their Euros ambitions.

Irish Independent

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