Ireland hoping to make Georgia miserable again
O'Neill wary of complacency ahead of latest battle with familiar foe
Published 06/10/2016 | 02:30
One year on from a memorable Thursday night in October, the hunter has become the hunted.
Ireland's win over Germany was a landmark moment at the Aviva Stadium, an occasion which showed that this generation of players were capable of delivering a notable upset in Dublin.
The mission tonight is to avoid being on the wrong end of a shock scoreline. History tells us that games between Ireland and Georgia tend to be tight. History also tells us that Georgia end up losing them.
Seven meetings - six of them competitive - have concluded with Irish victories. Five were settled by a single-goal margin, with late drama swinging towards the green corner a consistent feature of those encounters.
Georgia will feel they owe Ireland some misery, yet they are a nation that is used to disappointment on the international stage.
Last week, their record goalscorer Shota Arveladze was in Dublin to manage the Maccabi Tel Aviv that suffered defeat at the hands of Dundalk but on the eve of that match he did politely discuss his own national team with Irish reporters.
His take on the difficulty of the job faced by Slovakian Vladimir Weiss came with the informed knowledge of being a member of a family that used to be prominent in the Georgian FA.
"I'd rather be the Prime Minister than the national football coach," he sighed. "I've been called twice or three times to be coach and I love my country but it's not really my target. We can win six or seven wrestling gold medals in the Olympics but in football we are struggling. Our old coach had a disagreement and left. The new coach came in and changed the system. I'm not happy. I'm looking at my team struggling a bit more than before. I wish them luck, but it's hard for me to watch."
Martin O'Neill has understandably talked the Georgians up all week and Arveladze did reference the strong 20 minutes that added a hard-luck element to their opening defeat to Austria in Tbilisi.
The late rally to get on the scoresheet in a 2-1 defeat partially erased the memory of the erratic start which put them in that position.
Georgia do have a reputation for flaky performances on their travels with a friendly win in Spain before the Euros an extremely unusual exception to the rule. They really do specialise in peaks and troughs. The hosts are clear favourites, though, much as it's a tag that O'Neill dislikes because it can breed complacency.
He argued that Georgia are the best bottom-ranked side in the European qualifying section and he is probably right; form would suggest they are superior to the Moldovan side that Ireland will encounter in Chisinau this Sunday.
But discussion of that game is off limits. "We're not in the position - and Ireland never have been - to treat anyone lightly," said O'Neill, refusing to commit to a six-point target.
Various members of his squad have used that term, and they have reason to be confident. It is a while since Ireland really slipped on a banana skin.
There is a long-standing view that Ireland play better as underdogs, yet their points return against teams ranked below them has been impressive in the decade since the 5-2 drubbing at the hands of Cyprus in Steve Staunton's troubled reign.
Still, O'Neill is wary of any language which could be construed as a cocky reaction to a solid showing at a major tournament and an impressive finish to his first qualifying campaign to make it there.
"We did end up beating the world champions and it gave us an enormous boost and reawakened the nation which was important," he said. "And the follow-up against Bosnia ranks as one of the great evenings.
"Then France gave us a boost. I don't mind people having rising expectations but it's about dealing with those things and trying to have a realistic outlook about where we're going and what we're trying to do which is qualify.
"There will be ups and downs and twists and turns, as there is in every group. If we can't play at our maximum, then make sure we are as tight as can be."
As ever, the Derryman was guarded about his team selection and some of his players will be in the dark too.
He did argue that Ireland are capable of keeping the ball well when they need to score goals and if Wes Hoolahan is going to feature in this group, then this is the type of test where the experienced playmaker should anticipate a major role.
"When we want to open teams up at home, he has been an expert in that," said the 64-year-old.
James McCarthy's surprising availability adds competition to midfield if the medics give him the all-clear this morning.
McCarthy has looked comfortable when taking over Glenn Whelan's sitting role but if O'Neill deployed both of those players in addition to certain starter Jeff Hendrick then it would be a choice between Robbie Brady and Hoolahan for a creative midfield berth. That's without taking James McClean into the equation.
He does have options and it's possible that it will boil down to a choice between Whelan and McCarthy unless he wants to relocate Brady to left full.
At centre-half, Shane Duffy is back and a strong contender to come in ahead of either John O'Shea or Richard Keogh.
"We want to get on the front foot and attack," asserted O'Neill. "The onus is on us to do that. But this is a test. Georgia are not also-rans."
That may be so, but if Ireland are to challenge in this race then this is a game where they cannot afford to leave anything behind.