Stakes rising as Martin O'Neill seeks the right blend
Ireland manager facing delicate balancing act in Costa Rica clash as he bids to halt slide down rankings ahead of World Cup draw while also assessing all options in his squad
IN the week that Ireland dropped to 70th, a lowest ever position in the world rankings, friendlies like tonight's Philadelphia encounter with Costa Rica are gradually starting to take on a little more importance.
Martin O'Neill's job is to bring his new team to Euro 2016, so you can understand that he won't be getting bogged down with thoughts about the next World Cup in Russia four years from now.
However, a change in FIFA's method of organising the draw means that a team's ranking next July will dictate their status in that draw. The FAI are certainly very conscious of it.
As it stands, Ireland are clinging onto a place as fourth seeds, which is a grim position, and therefore it's stating the obvious to say that results have to pick up in the next 12 months.
Costa Rica are ranked 28th – another example, perhaps, of a flaw in the charts – and a victory for O'Neill's side at the PPL Stadium, his first since his opening-day dismissal of Latvia, would help bring Ireland up a little.
A stirring display against Italy last Saturday certainly succeeded in raising the confidence levels, although O'Neill has persistently pointed out that this end-of-season soiree is not about results; it's about preparation for the competitive battles down the line. Otherwise, he'd have opted for different fixtures.
"We've chosen pretty difficult games here," said O'Neill, bringing the Italian match and the preceding loss to Turkey into the discussion.
"If we'd gone the other way, and if you give me three or four teams we could have beaten, I'm not sure that would be the best preparation for the European Championship. Do I think this is the best preparation? Yes.
"It's funny how stats quickly mount up. We're playing some friendly games. This conversation was going to come around at some stage or other because we haven't been able to win a game or two. But I think we should have won our last three games. I watched the Italy game back last night, and we should have won it."
Misfiring performances in front of a goal have troubled O'Neill and, in that regard, the availability of Robbie Keane is a plus. The manager must decide whether to pair his skipper with Shane Long or choose between them.
Wes Hoolahan, deployed as a 'No 10' in the Turkish and Italian matches, would lose out if the 62-year-old went with two up front, and the manager hinted that the Dubliner might sit this one out. Tuesday's date with Portugal might prove more suitable for a crowded midfield.
With a view to the long term, though, O'Neill denied that he would simply face a straight choice between Hoolahan and Keane, making the comments with the latter sitting by his side at the pre-match press conference in New Jersey's Hyatt Regency before the team travelled by train to Philadelphia.
"Is there room for both players? Of course there is. There's always room for good players.
"I don't see Robbie and Wes being very similar players; I think Robbie – let's be fair – would score umpteen more than Wes would score as that's the nature of it."
"Robbie in his career has done both – he has created and scored – but I think nowadays people would probably think that Robbie would be a goalscorer and taker of chances .
"And the number he has scored for Ireland would suggest that he has done that in abundance.
"I don't see any great difficulty for the two of them working together. Whether Wes starts tomorrow, and he's done great for us in the two games, I wouldn't read much into that. In competitive games I don't see that (playing both) as a problem."
The Derry man wants his charges to pick up from where they left off against the Italians, but that is measured with the need to give each of his squad members a suitable amount of audition minutes.
Changes have been naturally enforced with Seamus Coleman, John O'Shea and Stephen Ward missing from his starting XI. Glenn Whelan and Marc Wilson are available again, while Jon Walters will fly in after recovering from a virus, albeit with the Portuguese showdown in mind.
Derby defender Richard Keogh is due a turn and Everton's Shane Duffy is in line for an international debut at some stage in this exercise.
Wilson is likely to replace Ward at left-back, with Stephen Kelly deputising for Coleman on the other flank. It's just a matter of whether Alex Pearce retains his place in the middle.
Jeff Hendrick and Anthony Pilkington excelled at Craven Cottage and will be disappointed if they fail to keep their place.
Whelan should come into the mix, though, while James McClean may rotate with Pilkington in these two fixtures, with Aiden McGeady keen to keep going following an interrupted campaign at club level. Kevin Doyle could also edge Long out of the initial XI.
With Costa Rica preparing for a devilishly difficult World Cup group that includes England, Ireland appealed as a warm-up option. Pretty much every Brazilian prediction suggests that Jorge Luis Pinto's side will exit at the first hurdle, considering that Italy and Uruguay make up an intimidating pool.
They are confident they can cause an upset along the way, however, with Pinto regarded as a disciplinarian who has built a side that are difficult to beat.
In qualifying, they operated with three centre-halves and two wing-backs, although Everton's Bryan Oviedo misses out on the entire adventure with a broken leg.
Their attackers are better known, with Arsenal's Joel Campbell making a big impact on loan at Olympiakos and scoring in their Champions League home win over Manchester United. Fulham striker Bryan Ruiz is the skipper. He spent their relegation season on loan at PSV Eindhoven.
"They picked a relatively strong side in their last game," observed O'Neill. "So they might change it around. So will we. It's an opportunity for some players to start games who haven't done so since I have been involved.
"There has been a good spirit among the players and I think that's been shown in the games that we've played.
"We will just try to have a similar type of performance and try to win the game if we could."
Ireland (possible) – Forde, Kelly, Pearce, Keogh, Wilson; McGeady, Whelan, Hendrick, McClean; Doyle, Keane.