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O'Neill must plug hole in Ireland's back four

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MARTIN O'Neill ticked some boxes but left a few more blank on a night punctuated by the kind of defending which makes managers blush.

Ireland created plenty of chances against Serbia but they handed them back gift-wrapped at the other end.

Given that O'Neill picked a rookie central defensive partnership, some of the confusion and nervousness shown by Mark Wilson and Richard Keogh was forgivable and understandable but some of the mistakes made by Stephen Ward and Seamus Coleman were not.

What this taught us is that O'Neill will struggle defensively without John O'Shea or Richard Dunne playing at their best, Coleman is still a work in progress and Ward's second chance may have come and gone.

We looked for freedom of expression from Ireland and we got some. We looked for Long to step up and he did but not often enough. We looked for James McCarthy to move up to a new level of control but we didn't see a great deal of that.

Once again and how often has it been so in the last 12 months, the star of the show was Wesley Hoolahan, a little man with a quick, quick football mind and feet connected to it.

Shining too was James McClean, committed, dashing and very, very effective in early part of the game when he rocked the Serbs back on their defence single-handed. Remember, this is the lad Giovanni Trapattoni tried to suppress when he used McClean in central midfield as a playmaker in Belgrade against Serbia back in August 2012 and after 17 minutes, wrote him off.

O'Neill's decision to choose Hoolahan as a second striker or fifth midfielder depending on your preference, showed that for home games at least, the freedom to play football will be at the top of the agenda.

MAGIC

Ireland set a high line and chased Serbia with great application and commitment. When they had the ball, Hoolahan's feet were laced with magic and the main beneficiary was Long who should have had a hat-trick by half-time, prompted by a series of delightful through balls and passes.

John O'Shea spoke about it before the game when suggested that O'Neill's secret was to allow players to play the game as naturally as possible but only after the basics have been addressed.

There were moments last night when, defensively at least, the basics didn't look too hot.

But that, hopefully will come.

It was just great to see Hoolahan doing his work and any Norwich City fans watching will be mystified he hasn't played every game for Chris Hughton this season.

It was also wonderful to see McClean, who clearly loves to play for O'Neill, tearing into the Serbian defence and as O'Shea put it, playing his natural game.

He came out of the traps like a sprinter from the first whistle and the Serbian defence were not as keen as he was to give it full throttle on a March mid-season night.

With many punters still looking for their seats McClean whipped a raking cross to the back post where Glenn Whelan was lurking. His shot looked goal bound but Hoolahan nipped in behind the Serbian defence and took a touch before the ball hit the net.

An offside decision which, on reflection, looked harsh ruled out the goal but it was the right kind of start though and put the crowd on adrenaline boost which always helps. They didn't have to wait for the real deal. Ten minutes later, Long put Ireland in front/

McClean's meaty contribution put Ireland on the front foot and signalled another good night for the man O'Neill took off the leash while he was manager at Sunderland.

Most of the good things Ireland did came in the first-half and the worry for O'Neill was a drastic reverse in fortunes once Serbia retrenched and came out for the second firing live rounds.

Pressure built steadily and an own goal by James McCarthy and six-yard finish from Djordjevic gave Serbia the lead.

MISTAKES

In the end, Serbia won because Ireland couldn't defend and it was a surprise to see mistakes by Seamus Coleman at the heart of such frailty.

He looked leggy, Coleman, as did many Ireland players when Serbia turned the game and presumably, that will not be the case next September when the Euro 2016 campaign gets under way in Tbilisi.

Overall, O'Neill had reason to be pleased, despite the defeat and plenty of substantial matters to get his teeth into between now and the summer friendlies.

He found out that Hoolahan can play box to box and that alone opens up all sorts of attractive possibilities, particularly for home games.

He also found out that Long's confidence is a very fragile thing and that he still needs Robbie Keane. The word from LA was arguably the most significant of the night.

Keane signing a 'multi-year' contract with the Galaxy means he hopes to be banging them in in a few years' time and available for international duty.

He is still Ireland's best striker and the main job for O'Neill know is to figure out a way to get Hoolahan, Keane and Long on the pitch at the same time.


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