Saturday 22 September 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: No more mister nice guys as moment of truth looms large

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The Ireland-Moldova match's lack of resemblance to a serious international fixture was illustrated by the amount of times the word 'nice' sprang to mind.

Wasn't it nice to see David Meyler getting the captaincy? Isn't it nice to see Daryl Murphy getting a couple of goals? It's nice to see Callum O'Dowda taking on players every chance he gets. Wouldn't it be nice if Shane Long managed to get a goal here? It would be nice if Ireland managed to string a couple of passes together in the second half. It'll be nice when this bloody game is over.

The 'n' word doesn't normally get used with such frequency when you're watching a competitive international game. But Friday night's match was a special one. It seemed as meaningless a match as Ireland have ever played, a glorified warm-up for the real business tomorrow night.

The only way the game could have meant anything would have been if Moldova got - or at least threatened to get - a result. By the 17th minute with Ireland 2-0 up it was clear this wasn't going to happen. Actually it was never going to happen. Moldova are a team who have now gone two qualifying campaigns in a row without a single victory. Austria, Wales and Serbia beat them home and away and Ireland were always going to do the same.

You can't even apply the usual condescending clichés to the Moldovans. They are not 'technically gifted' or 'hard to break down' or 'improving in recent years.' They are just, God love them, a bad team.

Though this didn't stop Ireland from making them look handy enough in a second half which represented a kind of football wasteland, a long stretch of futility bereft of either skill or intensity, the sporting equivalent of men killing time at work in the last few minutes before the weekend starts.

What poor entertainment Ireland have provided for the home support in this campaign. Two points out of nine against the other decent teams in the group, three goals in two games against the minnows. But even those unimpressive statistics don't fully capture the impoverished nature of the experience, all those long fallow spells with Ireland failing to impose a pattern on games spinning slowly and uncontrollably into the void like George Clooney in Gravity.

Murphy's two early goals briefly promised something different, a goal rush which would enable those of boisterous disposition to say that this kind of result had to be good for the confidence of the team going into the Wales match. In reality, a 6-0 win would have been no more meaningful than a 2-0 win. What can you take from a game like this? Even our goals resulted from the kind of approach, a long throw hoisted into the box, a ball slung in from the bye-line, with which the Welsh defence will be most comfortable.

Even against Moldova we can't play that slick passing football O'Neill's critics insist is buried somewhere in the Irish team's footballing DNA, its emergence baulked by the utilitarian instincts of the manager. O'Neill doesn't believe we can produce that kind of stuff and I'm increasingly inclined to think he's right. A performance like Iceland's extraordinary 3-0 away victory in Turkey is beyond us. We're not that good. Or at least not that kind of good.

Yet should we win tomorrow none of this will matter. Which will be fair enough because a victory in Cardiff and reaching the play-offs at the death would represent one of Irish football's greatest feats and provide us with one of the great national sporting nights. So what are the chances?

Not bad. Under O'Neill Ireland have generally been at their best when their backs are to the wall. Against Germany and Italy and Bosnia, they got the result when it was absolutely necessary to do so. That entitles the manager and the team to our faith. Wales have not been good in this group either, never recapturing their swashbuckling form of Euro 2016 or even of the qualifying campaign before that. And that was even before they lost Gareth Bale. Their progress has been a stumbling one.

But so has ours and there would be a certain poetic justice were the runners-up in the group to end up missing out, though this danger seems to have receded slightly over the weekend. It remains real enough, however, to ensure that Wales as well as Ireland will have to go for a win, something which will suit us.

Cardiff will represent the biggest test of O'Neill's international career so far. Unlike Italy, Wales have everything to play for. Unlike Germany, they will not be complacent. Unlike Bosnia they will be facing us in a one-off where home advantage is theirs.

Tomorrow night will be one of those rare moments of truth where both teams learn almost everything they need to know about themselves. Its resemblance to an old-school FA Cup tie will pose the type of challenge our players are used to. But Wales are cut from the same kind of cloth and Chris Coleman also has the memory of big challenges overcome to sustain him over the next 24 hours.

We shall see what we shall see. But one thing's for sure. Tomorrow's match will be the very furthest thing from nice.

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