O'Neill braced for stiff test from 'spirited' Georgia
'We have to fight and find ways of winning matches'
Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30
Three days ago, Georgia represented a beacon of hope. Now, in the wake of a famous win over Scotland that opened the door for Martin O'Neill's Ireland, they come with a health warning.
The perfect September for Irish Euro 2016 ambitions will be completed tonight if the hosts can collect three points at the Aviva Stadium and world champions Germany pile on further misery for the Scots in Glasgow.
O'Neill is understandably wary of the threat presented by a buoyant travelling party, who demonstrated a taste for mischief by killing the good vibes about Gordon Strachan's regime with a spirited performance where they merged menacing counterattacking, resolute defending and seat-of-the-pants tackling.
"They are rejuvenated now," stressed the Irish boss yesterday after the only training session since Friday's success in Gibraltar. "Their coach (Kakhaber Tskhadadze) was kicking every ball.
"In fact, their celebrations at the end were as if they had qualified for the competition itself.
"They definitely have a spirit, a renewed spirit about them that was possibly lacking early on and while I'm not saying it was down to Ketsbaia (Temuri, their boss when Ireland won 2-1 in Tbilisi last year) there was seemingly a lot of in-fighting in the Georgian camp.
"I think it has been sorted out now and that always leads to good team spirit."
That renaissance has also lifted the mood around the Irish camp, even if O'Neill is at pains to point out that Ireland would still have retained qualification hopes if Scotland had passed their acid test.
Indeed, he spent a portion of his pre-match press conference trying to send out the message that Ireland cannot afford to be triumphalist about the favourable turn of events seeing as they have three very difficult fixtures left on the agenda.
The tight turnaround time leaves little room for drastic alterations to the plan, and this may spell bad news for James McClean, Aiden McGeady and Shane Long. O'Neill spoke to the latter last week to assure him that he remains a big part of his plans and was thrilled by his goal in Portugal.
"He has the ability to do things that other players can't," he explained. "A bit of pace to get in behind teams, especially when they are pressing up. At home, when teams are sitting in and there's not much room, it might be something we'd look at."
But the fact that Robbie Keane was taken off on Friday with a view to preserving his energy suggests that the Tallaght man will start up top.
It's conceivable that the only change will be Seamus Coleman taking over from Cyrus Christie after shaking off a hamstring complaint.
This is the first competitive doubleheader since last October with stand-alone fixtures in November, March and June making it hard to deliver continuity in terms of team selection.
O'Neill has gradually warmed to a few ideas, with Robbie Brady switched to left full and a new midfield shape finding room for Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick.
Second guessing the Derry man's starting XI has proved to be a perilous task but if he sticks with that trio tonight then the conclusion can be drawn that he's settled on that strategy.
Whatever about Gibraltar, where a variety of combinations would probably have worked, that narrow set-up can be effective against better opposition and O'Neill said that he intends to be 'strong' in midfield again.
He'll need more from McCarthy who, it must be said, does not have the profile of a flat track bully who lords it in the destruction of minnows. The 24-year-old is at his best for Everton when it comes to having the athleticism and poise to deal with a frantic affair.
There was a chaotic element to Georgia's approach against the Scots where they lived on the edge. It should actually allow the calm presence of McCarthy to show his quality; O'Neill will be scratching his head if the Everton star is unable to do so.
The wild-card would be springing a winger in the form of McGeady or McClean. McGeady tormented Georgia in Tbilisi but is short of minutes. McClean is fully fit, yet the problem is that he has obvious appeal as an impact sub if Plan A is stalling.
Wes Hoolahan's creativity at the tip of the diamond will attempt to engineer openings, but the direct option to Jon Walters will also be utilised.
O'Neill, who spent his Sunday afternoon at the hurling final in Croke Park with Roy Keane, would be happy if the attendance was swelled by the fresh optimism. Nevertheless, he wants the audience to understand that it might be a bruising battle.
"If we're playing in a half-empty stadium, a half-full stadium, it doesn't make any difference," he asserted. "We can't get ahead of ourselves.
"We're not capable of being Spain and wiping the floor with somebody. We have to fight for every single particle that is going and find ways of winning football matches. That is the utter focus. We have to win and we're ready."