What Ireland XI will Martin O'Neill select to face Serbia? We've ventured a guess
Martin O’Neill has rarely failed to confound those who attempt to predict the personnel or formation he’ll deploy for any given fixture, but that shouldn’t preclude us from at least positing which Ireland XI will take the field to face Serbia in the World Cup qualification opener in Belgrade tonight.
With the tempered satisfaction of Ireland’s performance at the European Championships only truly useful as a means of harnessing a momentum unavoidably stalled by way of separation, and Robbie Keane bestowed with a befitting farewell, all roads now lead to Russia.
This evening at the Stadion Rajko Mitic, Ireland encounter a Serbia side who have not qualified for the last three major tournaments and, more pressingly, haven't played a game of any note since drawing 1-1 with Russia in a pre-Euros friendly almost three months ago to the day.
While O’Neill has tended to employ caution away from home, the absence of Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov has offered him an opportunity to put the proverbial cat amongst pigeons and strive for a maximum return ahead of October’s doubleheader.
So, who will the Derryman call on for his inaugural World Cup qualifier in management?
As ventured in today’s Irish Independent, O’Neill may go for a standard 4-2-3-1 which, of course, affords the back four a two-man bulwark in front of them, but it also arguably signals a distinct lack of ambition to go for the kill as early as possible.
Instead, the midfield diamond option, having served Ireland well in the recent past, could prove more potent.
An automatic choice at this stage, the West Ham stopper has barely put a foot wrong since replacing Shay Given during that famous win over Germany at the Aviva Stadium, and firmly seized his opportunity.
Unquestionably, the Donegal man’s match fitness will be a major concern, given he is yet to make a Premier League appearance for Everton this term due to an ankle injury.
The manager has said that Coleman should be up to the task and it will be interesting to see if he dons the captain’s armband should he start. If not, Cyrus Christie is an able deputy.
The Derby man and Shane Duffy hardly wrapped themselves in glory in the lead up to Antoine Griezmann’s decisive strike for France at the Euros but, traditionally, he is a reliable operator. Who he partners is quite the conundrum.
Like Coleman, O’Shea is barely recovered from injury, and the thought of fielding two defenders not fully fit will hardly appeal to the Irish management. However, Ciaran Clark is far too error prone and Keogh lacks the experience and savvy at this level to appropriately guide him. Giving the Waterford man the first 20 minutes to find his feet feels like the less risky option.
Back in the Premier League, where he has featured in all three of Burnley’s games to date, Ward pleasantly surprised with some assured displays at the Euros.
Perhaps not the most viable threat going forward, particularly in a system that requires full backs to provide width, his inclusion does facilitate the selection of Robbie Brady in midfield. Marc Wilson is also an option.
Often derided for a perceived lack of creativity, the fact remains that Whelan, as he continues to do so on a weekly basis for Stoke, is more than competent at protecting a defence. The injured James McCarthy would have been a more agreeable option but Whelan is by far the best available choice to anchor the midfield.
Along with Robbie Brady, Burnley’s record signing was easily Ireland’s best performer at the Euros. While he is probably more effective in a roving central midfield role, Hendrick has excelled at the right side of the diamond.
It could be justifiably argued that Brady should be feature at the tip of the midfield or even as a traditional number 10 behind the striker, but he can still adequately influence proceedings stationed on the left.
The Norwich man has a tendency to move infield and link play in the final third, which should not be hampered by his selection here. As always, his set piece deliveries and crossing will be pivotal. No better stage to show the Premier League clubs what they're missing.
Injury cruelly prevented the Bournemouth midfielder from travelling to the Euros but now that he’s in fine fettle, the time is right for O’Neill to fully make use of his talents.
Arter is a fine passer and a teak-tough tackler, thus using him in advanced area would allow for winning the ball high up the pitch and initiating swift transitions and, hopefully, locating Shane Long in behind an understrength Serbian rearguard.
Ireland’s very own berserker is in full health and surely chomping at the bit to be unleashed on the hosts. Walters’ indefatigable work-rate, ability to force errors and knack of netting important goals make him a nightmare for any defender. Should O’Neill choose to change tack with a result still being pursued in the latter stages, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean can be sprung from the bench.
Often cut an isolated figure during Ireland’s lower ebbs at the Euros, Long is coming off the best season of his career and, finally, can consider himself Ireland’s first choice striker. His acceleration and verve should unsettle Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, who is the Serbian captain but no longer as quick as days gone by.