Reasons to be cheerful, and reasons to be fearful heading into World Cup qualifiers
Ireland can shine in World Cup campaign despite Keane’s exit from stage
Published 29/08/2016 | 02:30
Robbie Keane's retirement from Ireland duty has distracted us from the fact that start of a World Cup campaign is just seven days away.
There's no soft landing either. On the last two occasions that Ireland have qualified for a major tournament, opening-night wins in Armenia and Georgia proved extremely important. Serbia is a tough opener, as they are genuine rivals for a place in Russia.
Off the back of a major tournament, it feels like the beginning of this race has come around quickly. Martin O'Neill effectively had a ten month build-up to Georgia where friendlies allowed every angle to be analysed.
Where do things stand now after France? There are lines of thought that will suit both the pessimists and the optimists.
THE BAD NEWS
(1) STRIKING MATTERS
Ireland missed having the full Keane package in the last two campaigns and the search for goals is going to put pressure on all areas of the team in the absence of a comparable poacher.
Shane Long turns 30 in January and will be the main man. Jon Walters is 33 next month and, for the second year in a row, he's kicked off a Stoke campaign on the bench.
Daryl Murphy (who signed for Newcastle United yesterday) is 33 and, while he did well in the Euros, he's still waiting for a first Irish goal. There were murmurs that O'Neill was going to include some new names in his enlarged squad but that never come to pass. Forwards are required. Joe Mason (Wolves) and Scott Hogan (Brentford) are two candidates.
(2) McCARTHY WOE
James McCarthy should be approaching the prime of his career, yet instead he's approaching a crossroads. A year ago, the prospect of the Glaswegian being involved in transfer window speculation was attractive, as top end clubs were monitoring his progression.
Instead, his place in Ronald Koeman's plans at Everton is unclear and a loan switch is a possibiliity. Champions League football at Celtic might not be the worst option.
Granted, the emergence of Jeff Hendrick in France offers hope in the centre of the park, although he could do with some activity too.
(3) DEFENSIVE STRIFE
Shane Duffy looked like the man of the future in the summer, just with a few rough edges to tidy up. Rough would be a polite description of his calamitous start to Blackburn's campaign.
Hopefully it was just transfer talk playing with his head, and a transfer to Brighton can allow the Derry man to challenge for promotion.
John O'Shea was asked to stay around for a reason, with Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark gearing up for a year in the Championship and Marc Wilson's specific role at Bournemouth to be confirmed.
O'Neill has chopped and changed over the past year and a settled pairing would help the cause. Duffy's suspension for Serbia prevents him from starting off in possession.
THE GOOD NEWS
(1) TECHNICAL OPTIONS
Ireland do have ball players. Robbie Brady shone in the Euros and Wes Hoolahan has juice left in the legs, although a full contribution to the campaign could be asking too much from him.
Harry Arter can make things happen too and Alan Judge will be back in a couple of months to help in the creativity department. A fit David McGoldrick is another alternative to Hoolahan. Jack Byrne and Chris Forrester are knocking on the door too.
Ireland may not be producing enough centre-halves and strikers, but O'Neill should be able to field a team that can pass the ball.
(2) NEWISH KIDS ON THE BLOCK
Admittedly, the list of individuals who have improved their club situation relates to Championship business as opposed to top flight.
Still, Callum O'Dowda's transfer to Bristol City, John Egan's move to Brentford and Jack Byrne's decision to spend a year at Blackburn offer some encouragement. Conor Hourihane has enjoyed promotion with Barnsley and started well.
There's a core of players in the 19-25 age bracket, with Preston's Alan Browne and Blackburn's Darragh Lenihan two to note.
(3) THE GROUP IS WIDE OPEN
It's really hard to reach a World Cup, with just one automatic spot and second not even guaranteeing a play-off - the runner-up with the fewest points across the nine groups also misses out.
Still, Ireland are used to starting campaigns with an outstanding side that expects to storm through barring accidents. Instead, Wales are the top seeds. Excellent as they were in the Euros, no team from these islands should make an Irish side afraid.
Austria were hyped going into France but showed they are fallible while the Serbians have the potential to be very good and both Georgia and Moldova can pick up points in a tricky sextet.
It is a challenging group where every fixture will be a competitive.
A fourth-place finish is possible, but the men in white coats should not be called if a first place finish is tipped.
The optimists will believe that anything is possible.