Tuesday 25 October 2016

Dan McDonnell on Ireland: Reasons to be cheerful, reasons to be fearful

Published 11/10/2016 | 02:30

Seamus Coleman led the Republic to back-to-back wins
Seamus Coleman led the Republic to back-to-back wins
Ireland's most accomplished playmaker Wes Hoolahan is still not a definite starter when everybody is available Photo: Reuters
New Irish captain Seamus Coleman Photo: Sportsfile

The floating football fan around Europe who scans the standings in the various World Cup qualifying groups will presume that Ireland have responded quite well to normal life after the European Championships.

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There is always the suspicion that smaller countries will suffer a major tournament hangover but, with seven points from nine, the perception will be that Martin O'Neill's side are on the road to another strong qualification challenge.

At home, there are contrasting views on the subject. Ireland raised the bar in France and their performances since then have failed to reach it.

Despite Georgia's resurgence, the run of fixtures meant that O'Neill's men really had to pick up two wins from their October endeavours to get points in the bank ahead of the difficult games coming down the tracks.

Whatever the view on the quality of the performances, the simple fact is that a point or more from next month's trip to Vienna will leave Ireland in an exceptionally good position heading into the new year.

Both the optimists and pessimists can find reasons to support their default stance at this juncture.

Glass half empty

Lack of strength in depth

The striking feature of the past week was the absence of game-changing options on the bench, with a number of injury problems seriously weakening O'Neill's hand.

Wes Hoolahan was an unused sub against Georgia, and international novice Jonny Hayes was the only other attacking option on the bench.

When Hoolahan was bumped into the side for Chisinau and then Shane Long was lost to injury, O'Neill had to turn to competitive debutant Callum O'Dowda as part of a reshuffle.

Their names are rarely shouted from the rooftops, but Daryl Murphy and Stephen Quinn made notable impacts in the opening night draw in Belgrade. They were missed when Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick dropped out of the equation.

So too was Harry Arter, who had to put up with ridiculous rumours about his intentions.

A setback for Long and Jonathan Walters would leave Ireland in a bad way, as management don't appear to trust Aberdeen's Adam Rooney just yet.

MLS-based Kevin Doyle has been in and out of O'Neill's plans.

Centre-half uncertainty

In league football, they say that a team with the settled back four will always feel the benefit at the end of the race. That continues to be an aspiration for Ireland, with the chopping and changing mid-Euros followed by another switch from September to October, with Richard Keogh and John O'Shea favoured in Belgrade but then benched for the double-header as Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy stepped in.

The reading of that could be that Duffy - absent from Serbia due to a ban - is now the first choice. But his role in Moldova's unexpected equaliser illustrated that he still has a lot to learn.

O'Neill may adopt a horses for courses approach and go for experience in Vienna, yet it would appear that he is unsure of his best combination. That can prevent an effective partnership from growing.

Lack of fluidity

This is the obvious point really, and it goes beyond the simple problems of retaining possession. Ireland were on top for most of the game in Moldova but they still went through a spell in the match after half-time where they lost their way and applied a hit-and-hope approach in search of joy until they were aided by the hosts dropping off and allowing them to regain confidence by keeping the ball.

There were longer spells in the other two matches where Ireland were out of sorts and unable to dictate the game in any way, with ideas in short supply.

Brady and Hendrick relished the high-energy challenge in the summer but they have been less effective in slower matches that require a bit more subtlety.

Hoolahan, the most accomplished playmaker, is a doubtful starter when everybody is available.

Glass half full

Fighting spirit

Here we go again. It's that Irish DNA. There have been uninspiring periods, yet when the backs were against the wall in Belgrade, the team emerged to score the goal they required.

The same applied to the Georgia and Moldova encounters, and six goals from three outings is a reasonable return given the concerns in the forward department.

James McClean answered the call for midfield players to chip in.

He was scorpy in Chisinau, hitting out at media criticism - the fans weren't exactly enamoured by the Georgia display either - and the siege mentality was also evident in O'Neill's post-match TV observations. The veteran boss is always intense around matches so there was nothing unusual about his mood.

But there was a sense on Sunday that the Georgia scare might just have jolted the team into life, with discussions turning to the road ahead and the group permutations as opposed to dwelling on France, contract delays and all the other stuff that was on the agenda in September.

Captain Coleman

The new Irish skipper did actually suffer some ropey moments at the Aviva before his solo run for a vital goal changed the course of the evening. That required character, though, and the focused 27-year-old has a work ethic which means that he can lead by example.

Significantly, that Georgia strike was his first in Irish colours and that tells a tale: he has found it harder to get forward and make inroads into the opposition box on international duty.

In Moldova he was consistently on the move forward. Granted, the limitations of the hosts facilitated that, and better teams will seek to curb his influence. Nevertheless, he looks to be playing with greater confidence now and that can only be a good thing.

Open group

Group D was an attractive conclusion for Ireland. The absence of a real superpower has given hope to all the participants, and Wales showed vulnerabilities in their draw with a tidy Georgian team that could easily have nicked three points from Cardiff.

Reports of Serbia's meeting with Austria described a chaotic affair where the level of defending was substandard. The post-mortem in Austria has focused on a leaky rearguard that is hurting a nation that seemed to be on the rise until a bad French experience.

They have shipped six goals in their opening three encounters.

Ireland were disciplined and solid in the Euros play-off with Bosnia, and finding that level in next year's home matches with the big guns could carry them a long way.

If O'Neill can sort his side out, then there's nothing to be afraid of.

Irish Independent

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