What changes could Martin O'Neill make ahead of Bosnian showdown?
Published 16/11/2015 | 16:20
Tinkering with personnel and formation has been a hallmark of Martin O’Neill’s tenure and, after the patchy performance in Zenica, he may be tempted to continue that trend for tonight’s do-or-die clash at the Aviva Stadium.
While the draw - and vital away goal - secured in the Stadion Bilino polje against an equally uneven Bosnia Herzegovina has put Ireland in a prime position to qualify for France next summer, it still doesn’t obscure the fact that Dzeko and co could have had the tie put to bed by half of time on Friday.
Of course, injury and suspensions limited O’Neill’s options at the weekend, though only Jon Walters is likely to start from the list of returning absentees, given the dearth of game time under the respective belts of Shane Long and John O’Shea.
Walters has been Ireland’s most reliable performer under O’Neill and his place in the starting XI seems all but certain, though exactly where he's deployed is most intriguing.
Daryl Murphy’s willingness and desire is beyond question but, even when factoring the lack of ball he saw, the Waterford man has shown he is not equipped to lead the line at this level.
Shane Long hasn’t played since sustaining an ankle injury during Ireland’s loss to Poland in Warsaw last month, so a cameo off the bench is probably the most that can be hoped for from the Southampton striker.
After 143 caps over 17 years, Robbie Keane’s legs are not what they once were, making the industrious and muscular Walters not just the best, but only logical candidate for the lone frontman berth.
Behind the Stoke man, the plot gets considerably thicker. O'Neill has been at pains to point out that playing for a scoreless draw - which would ensure qualification - is a recipe for disaster and he has no intentions of doing so.
Thus, Walters should have a floating number 10 stationed just off him. Wes Hoolahan has been the managers go to creator-in-chief over the past two years, though misgivings over his fitness remain, while the Norwich playmaker was far from his best in Zenica.
Yes, the prosaic midfield trio of Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy and Glen Whelan were of little help, but Hoolahan often looked unclear in his task.
When James McClean replaced Hoolahan, Robbie Brady was moved into the hole and duly registered his fine individual effort from there and, perhaps, it’s there he should remain.
Particularly in light of his profligacy in possession on Friday and unwillingness to track back and aid the beleaguered Stephen Ward who was being overrun by Mensur Mujdža and Edin Višća.
Retaining Hoolahan as an option for the latter stages may prove astute, despite what Eamon Dunphy would have us believe.
Ward performed admirably in the win over Germany but, with just two appearances for Burnley this season, his lack of sharpness finally told, and Marc Wilson needs to start at left full, and the marauding, energetic McClean ahead of him on the flank.
Captain for the night in Zenica, Glenn Whelan tackled hard, though the ease with which he conceded possession meant he increased his defence’s workload as supposed to limiting it.
James McCarthy must play as the holding midfielder, not only because Whelan is sometimes a liability in possession, but that he offers little in the middle third.
O’Neill surprised us all when naming such an ambitious team to face the world champions and it paid off in abundance. It would be nice if he did it again and finally gave Harry Arter a first competitive start. The Bournemouth midfielder offers the nous that many of those who have been preferred to him simply do not and he would surely hasten the supply to Walters and Brady. The more pragmatic O'Neill will most likely stick with the combative Stoke City man.
Although poor last time out, dropping Hendrick would be harsh. The Derby man has undoubted ability and can link up with Seamus Coleman to greater effect on the right flank.
Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh (man of the match), despite never being paired together, were outstanding and made numerous timely interventions, most notably in the opening period. Even if John O’Shea were in full health, it would be tough to justify his immediate return to the starting line up.
The guests are there for the taking and, if Germany were unravelled by some forward thinking, it's safe to say they will too.