Saturday 21 October 2017

Success of Faro trip reliant on events far away

Mood after inevitable victory will be shaped by how Scotland perform

Ireland players including Jeff Hendrick (left) go through their paces in training last night
Ireland players including Jeff Hendrick (left) go through their paces in training last night
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Everything we know about this generation of Irish players suggests that they will comfortably beat Gibraltar tonight.

It's hardly a startling prediction. Anything less would be a disaster of epic proportions and, for all the respectful talk of an improvement from Group D's whipping boys since their 7-0 drubbing in Dublin last October, the management and players know their brief.

An opponent which has conceded 34 goals in the space of six qualifiers is there to be swatted aside in the heat of Faro.

Ireland have become relatively efficient in overcoming the plucky underdog with Steve Staunton's chaotic campaign, which featured a five-goal concession in Cyprus and a narrow escape in San Marino, consigned to the distant past, although Robbie Keane did mention yesterday that the latter episode remains fresh in his mind as a warning against complacency.

Giovanni Trapattoni did drop points in Montenegro in 2008 but they were a new entity that have since progressed to a higher ranking in keeping with their quality. Since then, Ireland have taken full points from every clash with the bottom two seeds in their qualifying group. Hairy moments in Kazakhstan and Georgia concluded with a happy ending.

Unfortunately, this has coincided with the loss of the old ability to nab a victory while acting as the David to Goliath, or even the David to David.

This failure is why deflating results against Poland and Scotland have left O'Neill in need of a helping hand from Tbilisi this evening.

The success or otherwise of Gordon Strachan's mission in Georgia will dictate the mood around Estadio Algarve, a venue that was initially constructed for the 2004 European Championships.

Qualifying for major tournaments is what international football is all about, so that's why O'Neill didn't take too kindly to being reminded of Ireland's standing in the latest world rankings behind near neighbours Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The forgettable 2011 Carling Nations Cup even got a mention from the floor, a competition that drowned on account of its own irrelevance.

Puzzled

"That must have been a humdinger," said a puzzled O'Neill when Ireland's success in that event was mentioned. He didn't appear to be aware of the short-lived tournament's existence.

"In my time I won a few friendlies myself. I'd assume they were strong friendly matches, but I don't think they make a strong judgement.

"What I find staggering is that Wales, having not had a great World Cup campaign, have done very well this time and find themselves ahead of England in the rankings. I really don't know how that came about.

"In terms of us, we have to start winning matches in major competitions. We didn't qualify for the World Cup. We haven't qualified for that many Euros since the competition started in 1960 and I want to address that."

Gibraltar, on the other hand, have no hope of making that stage unless UEFA's expansion of the finals extends to farcical proportions.

They are looking to measure success in their own way as they adapt to life at this level. Their new manager Jeff Wood and captain Roy Chipolina refused to get drawn down a line of questioning which usually ends with a half-hearted proclamation that taking points off Ireland is possible.

"I'm not really looking at results at the moment," said Chipolina, "Our aim is to progress and I don't think the scoreline always reflects the progression you've made.

"We lost 7-0 to Germany (in June) but I think we played better there than we did in the 4-0 defeat to Germany (last November) if that makes any sense."

Wood offered to buy a pint if Gibraltar pulled off an upset, yet he wasn't seriously entertaining the notion.

"We're not looking maybe just to defend and keep the score down," he explained. "We're looking to pose a threat to teams now."

Chipolina did confess that the hammering in the Aviva was their worst moment to date, with Ireland threatening to run up double figures before firing blanks in the final 30 minutes.

The chief tormentors on that occasion were Keane, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean and they all have strong claims to figure here.

With Georgia in mind, it's also an opportunity for management to give 90 minutes to undercooked Stoke pair Shay Given and Marc Wilson even though Darren Randolph and Ciaran Clark have strong claims as they are match-sharp. The suspicion that O'Neill may shy away from experimentation is strengthened by his decision to leave newcomers Eunan O'Kane and Adam Rooney at home along with Anthony Pilkington, Alex Pearce and the injured Paul McShane as competition regulations forced him to chop his panel to 23.

O'Kane and Rooney will train again with the group on Saturday knowing that they will have to wait patiently for a first cap.

O'Neill has advanced the cause of youngsters Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick during his stint in charge and the former should be prominent raiding forward from left-back.

Hendrick's participation may revolve around a firm conclusion on the seriousness of a minor knock James McCarthy is carrying. Both Glenn Whelan and McCarthy are a yellow card away from a ban so that's another element to consider.

O'Neill indicated that he would not go out of his way to tell the players the result in Georgia but anticipates they will probably find out anyway. Keane added that it shouldn't affect the focus either way, which is what you would expect the captain to say.

A voice from the floor reasoned that Ireland would likely be ahead of the Scots in the table by Tuesday seeing as world champions Germany are in Glasgow on Monday.

As it stands now, the gap is two points.

"We've a few games to endure between now and then," replied an unconvinced O'Neill.

"It's not for me to think about anything else, something that may or may not happen. We're trying to control what's in front of us."

The reality, though, is that if Ireland are realistically to regain control of their destiny, they require a huge favour over 3,500 miles away from the picturesque venue for this quirky showdown.

Gibraltar v Ireland,

Live, RTé 2/Sky Sports 1, 7.45

Irish Independent

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