Saturday 29 April 2017

We're at our best with our backs to the wall

O'Neill and Walters refuse to be downbeat despite growing injury worries ahead of crucial clash

Robbie Brady. Position: Left back/midfield. Last start: v Austria (November). Reason for absence: Suspension. Likely replacement: Stephen Ward. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Robbie Brady. Position: Left back/midfield. Last start: v Austria (November). Reason for absence: Suspension. Likely replacement: Stephen Ward. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

This is not the week to be throwing the word crisis around liberally.

Ireland have injury problems but they have been kept in perspective by the shocking news of Derry City captain Ryan McBride's passing which hung over proceedings in Abbotstown yesterday.

The flags outside FAI HQ were at half mast.

Martin O'Neill's huddle with the daily newspapers started with a couple of questions about McBride and the impact of his loss on his friend James McClean.

Shane Duffy. Position: Centre-half. Last start: v Austria (November). Reason for absence: Broken metatarsal. Likely replacement: Richard Keogh. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Shane Duffy. Position: Centre-half. Last start: v Austria (November). Reason for absence: Broken metatarsal. Likely replacement: Richard Keogh. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"It's obviously devastating news," said O'Neill. "This time last week, I'm sure he was enjoying life and now suddenly it's gone."

A respectful silence followed before discussion eventually resumed by turning to the comparatively mundane and irrelevant business of team news ahead of Friday's game with Wales.

In sport, the show always has to go on and, in the search for comfort, it can provide a positive distraction.

McClean is the one player in the Irish camp who knew McBride well and everything we know about the West Brom winger suggests he will use the emotion of the week to lift his performance level at the Aviva Stadium.

O'Neill will need his energy and intensity because of the fitness problems that have complicated his preparations for the vital showdown with our neighbours.

The Irish boss has referenced the irony of a build-up dominated by Gareth Bale talk that has concluded with the Welsh pretty much at full strength and Ireland worried about the absence of several mainstays.

Ciaran Clark. Position: Centre-half. Last start: v Austria (November). Reason for absence: Knee problem. Likely replacement: John O’Shea. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ciaran Clark. Position: Centre-half. Last start: v Austria (November). Reason for absence: Knee problem. Likely replacement: John O’Shea. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Ciaran Clark, Shane Duffy and Robbie Brady would have started, and one or both of Harry Arter and Wes Hoolahan might well have figured too. The vibes are bad about James McCarthy and Daryl Murphy but they have not given up hope.

The Brady blow is the one that really hurts because it was self-inflicted. "We are missing him because he has thrown the ball away in Austria," sighed O'Neill, "Robbie said last night that he hadn't known he had already picked up one yellow card... well you think that would be pretty foremost in your mind. There are only two.

"That was kind of daft but it would be nice if he had have been available because he is actually fit, so that is the irony of it all. So there we go."

In a strange way, however, the issues with personnel have somehow helped to re-cast Ireland to the role of underdog even though they come into this match four points ahead of Chris Coleman's side and two clear of Serbia at the top of Group D.

Wales are top seeds, but lack the intimidation factor that comes with that tag. And yet O'Neill was asked if a draw would now be an acceptable result in the circumstances.

He then spoke of his certainty that his team won't lack for effort, even if they do have limitations. Again, these are words that have previously featured in press conferences ahead of clashes with major powers like Germany and France.

Ireland midfielder Harry Arter
Ireland midfielder Harry Arter

The injuries are a major headache but, in a strange way, they have helped to lower expectations in a week where Ireland have a serious opportunity to take a giant step towards Russia.

His squad are guarded too with Jon Walters wary of anybody getting carried away, noting the example of a Scotland group that feverishly celebrated a draw in Dublin with four matches to go in the Euro 2016 race when the table appeared to be weighted in their favour.

"You can't think we're sitting pretty now and doing very well, because as soon as you do that you get tripped up," warned the Stoke man.

Wes Hoolahan. Position: Attacking midfield. Last start: v Austria (November). Reason for absence: Thigh strain. Likely replacement: Aiden McGeady. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan. Position: Attacking midfield. Last start: v Austria (November). Reason for absence: Thigh strain. Likely replacement: Aiden McGeady. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"The way the campaign has gone so far we're riding the crest of a wave but I'm sure there'll be ups and downs. We're not a Spain or a Brazil, or someone like that, winning every game easily, cantering through the group.

"We'll have good results and bad results and we just have to go with it, not get too down with the bad results, but if we can a result on Friday it creates a big gap between ourselves and Wales. It might be too far for them, who knows.

"Serbia and Austria are battling it out behind us but I'm sure they'll pick up results along the way as well."

Walters' availability is a major boost for management. He made a timely return at Stoke after a tear in his meniscus required surgery in January and the 33-year-old now feels that the origins of that might date back to the concluding match of last season's Premier League.

His French adventure was curtailed by niggling issues but he did recover to feature in the four opening matches of this qualification race. But he has arrived for this gathering in better shape with club games against Manchester City and Chelsea functioning as the ideal prep.

"Lots of running around, lots of defensive work," he smiles. "Two tough ones but, most importantly, I got through them and I'm fresh and ready to go.

James McCarthy. Position: Midfield. Last start: v Moldova (October). Reason for absence: Hamstring (doubt). Likely replacement: Glenn Whelan. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
James McCarthy. Position: Midfield. Last start: v Moldova (October). Reason for absence: Hamstring (doubt). Likely replacement: Glenn Whelan. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"I set out right from the start - myself, the surgeons and the physios - for six to eight weeks and it took seven after the operation to be back training so I was happy with that."

Walters and McClean will start and, with Murphy a doubt, Shane Long should feature too. Even at full strength, they are arguably Ireland's first-choice attacking options. It's the midfield area that is of concern and O'Neill will have to deliberate over whether to include the creativity of Aiden McGeady.

As ever, he will leave it late before confirming his intentions and he concluded a query about the Preston loanee by changing tack slightly and referencing the importance of set-pieces.

They are always a big part in the anatomy of a derby style fixture and it's clear that O'Neill is anticipating a battle.

Shorn of Hoolahan and Brady, it's that type of encounter which might well suit his leading lights.

Daryl Murphy. Position: Striker. Last start: v France (Euro 2016). Reason for absence: Calf (doubt). Likely replacement: Shane Long. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Daryl Murphy. Position: Striker. Last start: v France (Euro 2016). Reason for absence: Calf (doubt). Likely replacement: Shane Long. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

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