Tuesday 6 December 2016

Striking concern as Martin O'Neill gears up for battle

Ireland manager warns against complacency

Published 04/10/2016 | 02:30

Republic of Ireland players from left Eunan O’Kane, James McClean, Richard Keogh, Paul McShane, Jonathan Walters and Alex Pearce during training in Abbotstown. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland players from left Eunan O’Kane, James McClean, Richard Keogh, Paul McShane, Jonathan Walters and Alex Pearce during training in Abbotstown. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

As he prepared to come away for the second week of Ireland's World Cup campaign, Martin O'Neill had a discussion with a friend who has a limited knowledge of football.

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The friend was aware that Georgia and Moldova were the two games on the October menu and casually mentioned to O'Neill what it would mean if Ireland got six points on the board.

"I nearly throttled him," said the Derryman yesterday, perturbed by any inference that games with the group's lowest-ranked sides would be routine exercises. "It's not like that."

He has previous with Georgia and has therefore barred any talk of the trip to Moldova later this week for a Sunday evening showdown in Chisinau.

Taking it one game at a time is the oldest cliche in the book of course, but O'Neill has good reason to feel a trace of anxiety about Dublin on Thursday.

After all, both wins over the Georgians on the road to Euro 2016 were secured by late goals in tense encounters: the Aiden McGeady magic in Tbilisi and a late Jonathan Walters strike at the Aviva 13 months ago.

O'Neill was surprised that Georgia started their campaign with a home defeat to Austria and a DVD viewing suggested they were unlucky to come away from nothing after waking from their slumber in the dying stages.

"This is a dangerous game for us and we must have total concentration on it," he asserted.

That will be the line for the week and, once O'Neill had rattled through his list of injury concerns, there wasn't too much scope to dwell on much else after his first training session of this gathering.

No comment would be offered on Sam Allardyce's demise, while he did briefly stray into discussion of his former club Aston Villa's difficulties. Their plight saddens him.

But in the here and now, his concern is negotiating a week where Ireland have everything to lose as resounding favourites. Earlier in the day, Robbie Brady had spoken about how strange it would be to meet up without Robbie Keane being present.

And, while the Tallaght man was a diminished force in the O'Neill years, these are the kind of games where Ireland could rely on him to dodge the banana skin.

Ireland have never dropped a point against Georgia - they are efficient in this type of encounter - but they are short of an in-form striker to dig them out of a hole.

Registered

Shane Long and Jon Walters have yet to score this term. In fact, Long has not registered in 17 matches with club and country, so he is in need of a break.

O'Neill has summoned Adam Rooney, yet it would be a surprise if a new cap was handed out, and he indicated that he might turn to James McClean as a forward option with Daryl Murphy ruled out - a blow that came as a shock to management.

There is no update on the pursuit of Brentford's Scott Hogan, and the 64-year-old added that there could be some doubts surrounding the intentions of Wolves attacker Joe Mason despite the fact he was capped up to U-21 level.

Ultimately, it's Long and Walters that will shoulder the responsibility although both have had to cope with spells on the sidelines at club level.

"It would be nice if the players were coming in here were playing and scoring a few goals but even if they had a few goals, there would be no guarantee they would score against Georgia," continued O'Neill.

"I don't think they lack confidence. They know they are important to us.

"Obviously it is better if you are doing well. That is a given. We have lost Robbie Keane, who has been the natural goalscorer and he was the one who you thought could conjure you a goal, get you a goal.

"We don't really have that. Jon Walters could nip in and get you something. Shane is the scorer of some really, really great goals. I want him to get into positions to score more often.

"I don't think him seemingly not being a regular with Southampton would affect us because we would have to rely on certain players and Shane has been excellent for us in the past."

It is a year since Long's goal against Germany transformed Ireland's Euros campaign, and that set him off on a good run at club level.

That was also the fixture where Darren Randolph made his first competitive start following a long wait. An injury to Keiren Westwood means that his understudies on Thursday will be the uncapped Danny Rogers (Falkirk) and Ian Lawlor (Manchester City).

"I am always concerned about every department," said O'Neill. "That's the nature of football."

O'Neill is reasonably well stocked in midfield and has opted to leave Conor Hourihane's introduction to the camp until another time.

The Barnsley midfielder didn't have his best game when the Irish boss took in his club's encounter with Brighton.

Stephen Quinn is out, James McCarthy is a major long shot after reporting to engage in light training, while the outcome of a scan on a groin issue will determine if Harry Arter can make his competitive bow.

O'Neill still has Glenn Whelan, Jeff Hendrick, the option to use Robbie Brady centrally and a likely home game role for Wes Hoolahan, so it's hardly a crisis.

Still, these fixtures stood out as an opportunity to accelerate Arter's international career, so his availability would help. Birmingham's Stephen Gleeson has survived the cut.

O'Neill again reiterated Dundalk's fixture schedule ruled out any of their European heroes but he went on to pay a warm tribute after taking in their win over Maccabi Tel Aviv.

O'Neill praised the quality of the performance that yielded a result. You sense that he would be satisfied if this Thursday also culminated with a 1-0 home win.

Irish Independent

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