Saturday 29 April 2017

Savvy Ireland can stifle Welsh wizards in a night of passion at the Aviva

Wales deserve respect but O'Neill's men can take advantage of Coleman's need for victory

Ireland players are put through their paces yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ireland players are put through their paces yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

They have Bale, but it's only Wales.

It's the kind of sentiment that Chris Coleman could pin on a dressing room wall as motivation ahead of tonight's seismic World Cup qualifier in Dublin. And that's why no member of the Irish camp will ever publicly speak in those terms.

After all, Wales's run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals last summer was about much more than the talismanic presence of the Real Madrid star. They are a decent side, with a couple of other players that Martin O'Neill would love to have at his disposal.

Still, when the World Cup qualification draw was made in the summer of 2015, the outcome looked attractive for Ireland because of the identity of the top seeds. After drawing Germany in three of the previous five campaigns this was a kinder alternative, a pool where a first-placed finish was not a pipe dream but a realistic aspiration. Austria and Serbia viewed things in the same terms.

With 10 points from a possible 12 on the board, Ireland are in prime position to achieve that aim. And, for all that Bale is an outrageous talent, ably supported by Aaron Ramsey in a system that plays to their strengths, the away side at the Aviva Stadium tonight are a known quantity.

This game will have a familiar edge because so many of the protagonists will be locking horns with past or present team-mates and regular opponents. Players from Everton, Stoke, West Ham and Burnley will be represented on both sides.

Wales' Gareth Bale. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Wales' Gareth Bale. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Wales have plenty of reasons to be confident and they go beyond Ireland's injury problems; they would have felt the same if their hosts were at full strength. Earlier this week, retired Welsh striker John Hartson was asked what happened if the respective sides played to their maximum.

"That's a stupid question," he replied. "You know that Wales win. I don't think I'm going overboard.

Real Madrid

"Arsenal turned £40m down for Aaron Ramsey two years ago. And when Bale plays, we predominantly win. When he plays well for Real Madrid, Real Madrid predominantly win.

"What happens when he plays is that he gives the rest of the team a lift because they all know they have to raise their standards. It's like if Roy Keane was taking to the pitch on Friday, the rest of the players know they must raise their game. We've got the individuals."

Yet in the same interview, Hartson acknowledged that Northern Ireland were the better side when they met Wales in the round of 16 in the Euros, the tournament that eventually cemented the legacy of Chris Coleman's team. They have already made the movie about it.

That game could be spun both ways as an indicator for this fixture; the derby-type nature of the match neutralised a Welsh side that can be quite dynamic when afforded space. But it was still just one moment from Bale that led to Gareth McAuley's own goal.

O'Neill can relate to that. The build-up to Ireland's Euro opener against Sweden was all about Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his team did a pretty good job of handling him; Seamus Coleman referred to it yesterday. But the asterisk is that Sweden's main man managed to produce just one little bit of skill that drew the calamitous error from Ciaran Clark to deny Ireland victory. The better players tend to come out on the right side of the fine margins.

Wales have found that their card is marked since France, with opponents no longer underestimating them.

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That said, they have managed to lead at half-time in their last three qualifiers but ended up drawing on each occasion, with late concessions at home to Georgia and Serbia stinging hard.

"I don't think they are suffering," cautioned O'Neill. "I think their expectations now are very high. I don't think there's been any lull in their performances; they are capable of winning football matches home and away."

Ireland have managed to tick those boxes too and the big home wins over Germany and Bosnia at the tail end of the Euros qualification campaign were referenced in the preliminaries.

The only competitive home date since then was a slightly underwhelming display against Georgia that was rescued by a burst from Coleman to score the game's only goal.

Georgia's subsequent draw in Wales made that result look better in hindsight - O'Neill continues to mention it - but that was a match where the green shirts had to absorb pressure.

The unavailability of Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and Harry Arter has robbed Ireland of creativity through the middle and with Wales capable of overloading that department O'Neill has decisions to make.

James McCarthy has trained for two days on the trot and is in contention despite ongoing hamstring problems that have curtailed his Everton campaign.

"Naturally you would think about the length of time somebody would last," said O'Neill. "In general, he's usually a very fit lad."

The question is whether O'Neill is happy to go with Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick in the engine room and look to deploy the in-form Aiden McGeady ahead of them as attacking support for James McClean, Jonathan Walters and Shane Long.

That would be a bold call, whereas saving McGeady for the role of impact sub, and selecting McCarthy or David Meyler would give extra midfield cover in the areas where Bale and Ramsey are likely to roam in Wales' hybrid 3-5-2.

There would be a pragmatism in that line of thinking, as a draw would be a reasonable result in the context of the overall group.

But there is also the possibility that Ireland could capitalise on Wales' greater need for the three points. If Ireland are in the game after half-time and red shirts start to take risks, then the counter-attacking strength of Long and a fired-up McClean should come to the fore - the latter will wear number five as a tribute to his friend Ryan McBride.

"James plays with emotions anyway," said O'Neill, batting away any concerns about the Derryman's mindset. "He plays with the heart on the sleeve but after going to the wake to pay his respects to the family, he's fully focused on the game now."

Ireland have lost first-choice options in vital areas, yet they do have seasoned players around the park that have experienced this type of occasion before; John O'Shea and Richard Keogh at centre half, full backs Stephen Ward and Coleman. Hendrick has grown in stature.

Together, they possess the savvy to keep a solid shape against an opponent capable of exposing fault lines. And they should have the smarts to match Wales under a number of headings, especially in the high tempo, full blooded affair that seems inevitable.

A share of the spoils will not be the target but it would be far from unacceptable.

Verdict: Ireland 1 Wales 1

Irish Independent

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