Monday 25 September 2017

James Lawton: Everybody knows Ireland can fight, the question is can O’Neill get them to play?

Republic Of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Reuters
Republic Of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Reuters
Manager of Republic of Ireland Martin O'Neill during a press conference at FAI NTC in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
James Lawton

James Lawton

Sooner or later a football team must define itself not with the best of intentions nor the most admirable heart - and still less a gut-deep avowal to do better. They must prove they can play, really play. It also helps if the coach gives them the means.

This, certainly, is the depth of the challenge facing Martin O'Neill's Ireland against Serbia tonight.

Aleksandar Kolarov of Serbia during squad training at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Aleksandar Kolarov of Serbia during squad training at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

O'Neill, a football man in whom there is no doubt much to admire, talked long and with some passion yesterday about the way his men might redeem the bankrupt performance in Georgia which has so imperilled the nation's hopes of a first World Cup appearance in 16 years.

He cited a history of journeys back from oblivion. He spoke of a natural-born capacity to redeem the most discouraging evidence of a chronically recurring shortage of game-in, game-out professional nous.

Worryingly, though, he did not address the problem which so consumed the hopes - and the pride - of elite ex-players like Liam Brady and Ronnie Whelan last Saturday night. He talked about how Ireland would fight their way back into the World Cup reckoning. But what man like Brady and Whelan wanted to know, a little despairingly, was not how hard Ireland would fight. Given events in Georgia, and the team's history, that could be taken somewhat for granted.

The question that matters against a hard and not unsophisticated Serbia is not how hard they will fight but how intelligently, coherently, and systematically they will play.

A key O'Neill point was that his team remained unbeaten in World Cup qualifying and that his players needed reminding of that, adding, "they have to take the criticism and really get on with it. What's important is what you do on the field and if we play strongly tomorrow we can win the game."

O'Neill begged a question. Get on with quite what? It has to be something quite radically different to what was produced in Georgia.

They do say that there are lies, damned lies and statistics but those which came out of the 1-1 were as transparently based in truth as they were damning of an Irish performance.

The Georgians had 69pc of the ball and used it with invention and purpose. Their opponents hoofed it in some threadbare belief that they could, with such crude means, hang on to the fourth-minute lead that came to them as a gift from the Georgian goalkeeper.

It was Doomsday pragmatism and the fact that three or four chances came to Ireland was a reminder that Georgia, for all their niftiness on the ball, occupy 112th place in the Fifa rankings, 81 spots behind Ireland.

Serbia also trail Ireland in those rankings, but by a mere 13, and there will be little comfort to be drawn from such an advantage if Ireland are not equipped to deal with the weight - and the subtlety - of the game brought to the Aviva Stadium by such as Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov, Dusan Tadic and Aleksandar Mitrovic.

It means that the task facing O'Neill and his ramrod Roy Keane is not exhortation - that was a force which dribbled to nothing in the Tbilisi Stadium.

No, the challenge is to send out a team not only psychologically but tactically prepared ... a team operating on a certainty of purpose that was so dispiritedly absent in the game which so needed to be won.

Of course the Irish management do not have the kind of playing quality so marked in the selections of Jack Charlton of such as Brady and Whelan and, which staggeringly from today's perspective, was not always automatic in the case of Brady.

At 35 Wes Hoolahan is close to a point of no return and he and Aiden McGeady, the one Irish player to bring a breath of creative instinct when he came on as a substitute on Saturday, are listed as injury doubts for tonight.

But with or without them, O'Neill and Keane have a duty to create an approach to a game of huge importance which, win or lose, will not leave the sour taste of failed ambition and instinct.

No one is ready, surely, to dismiss the achievements of a team which have so often stretched far beyond the sum of their collective talent.

The game in Georgia did not discredit the spirit which under O'Neill has brought some notable achievement, not least the uplifting showing in last summer's European Championship finals. But what it did do, and to a shocking extent, was reveal the limits of fighting spirit when stripped of some basic football acumen.

Ireland can fight like tigers at the Aviva Stadium tonight, and who knows, there might be a taste of glory in the air. But first they must play football in a way that suggests they know what they are doing.

Serbia, we can be sure, will seize on any evidence that for the second time in four days, that is some way from the case.

Irish Independent

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