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England showdown will just be warm-up for Scotland - Martin O'Neill

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Ireland's Championship contingent, Including James McClean, will need the game-time against England on June 7 to fine tune for the visit of Scotland one week later

Ireland's Championship contingent, Including James McClean, will need the game-time against England on June 7 to fine tune for the visit of Scotland one week later

REUTERS

Ireland's Championship contingent, Including James McClean, will need the game-time against England on June 7 to fine tune for the visit of Scotland one week later

From a commercial and symbolic point of view, England's return to Dublin in June is of huge importance to the FAI. In football terms, however, it is meaningless.

Martin O'Neill acknowledged this reality in more diplomatic terms in the aftermath of Sunday's Aviva Stadium draw with Poland.

Ireland's next fixture is the visit of Roy Hodgson's to these shores on Sunday June 7, a friendly the FAI have been chasing for the best part of a decade. More 20 years after the tumult of England's last visit, the game will be preceded by a frenzied build-up and a desire to get one over the old enemy. Players will be desperate for involvement.

O'Neill is looking at the bigger picture, though, and, understandably, the subsequent Group D showdown with Scotland six days later will shape every decision he makes heading into the summer.

Managers generally try to avoid declaring games as 'must-win' but he applied that label to the second meeting with the Scots after Shane Long salvaged a point from the Polish battle.

Put simply, the Scottish match will determine if the O'Neill era is remembered as a success or failure. They are the only 90 minutes that matter and it is entirely likely that the English joust will be used to boost the fitness of his Championship squad members that report for duty after a month without a game.

Asked directly if the England encounter was essentially a means to an end, O'Neill replied: "It is for me but you know my view. At the end of the day, if you want us to win a load of friendly games I'll play the 700th rated team in Europe every single week and build it (ranking) up.

"It's a big match, but it's not for me. The Scotland game is the be all and end all.

"England is a big, big match but I don't think we should overlook the fact that for me, it's a build-up to Scotland.

"It will be intense and that might be a good thing, but from a distance I may need three or four of those (Championship) players to be playing so they have that intensity of a game and be ready for the following week."

James McClean and Wes Hoolahan, two important performers, would be affected by this situation. McClean definitely will not be involved in the play-offs as his Wigan side are desperately battling to avoid relegation, along with David Forde's Millwall.

Hoolahan, meanwhile, is part of a Norwich side pushing for automatic promotion but could still miss out on the play-offs completely in a congested race. O'Neill has contingents at Derby and Ipswich in a similar scenario, even though they were weekend spectators.

Injuries can disrupt plans and that's why it is difficult to carry momentum from one international window into the next.

Nevertheless, O'Neill does feel that his team laid down a template for achieving their goals with a spirited display after half-time against the group leaders.

"I said it to the players afterwards," he said. "Replicate that there and we have got a real fighting chance."

The challenge, of course, is to find a way of starting game better.

Many of the question marks that lingered before Poland remain on the agenda: Shay Given v Forde? Robbie Keane v Shane Long? Is Robbie Brady suited to left-back? Is inactivity at Everton affecting Aiden McGeady? To Wes or not to Wes?

Brady needed a supportive word at the break after struggling in his new brief and it's unclear if he has got a future in the position, much as it's apparent that O'Neill wants to find room on the pitch for his creative talents. The problem for the Dubliner in the first 45 was that he was also misfiring in departments where he normally excels.

"Robbie's delivery is usually better for a start as he overhit a couple of balls and then the mix-up for the goal didn't help," said the manager.

"But he's a little character and he took it on board and fought back in the second half. I think playing with James McClean helped him greatly."

"Stephen Ward hasn't played much football at all," he continued, discussing Brady's long-term station.

"During the course of the week, Robbie was always going to be playing there, whether we played three at the back or not. I think he has played all three positions for Hull, so he is comfortable enough at left-back, he can play left wing and funnily enough he can play a bit as well.

"The main thing for us is that if we have the two holding midfielders to stay there and not go too far - still try and dominate the game but not too far - I've enough attacking (options) to maybe create something."

Indeed it was the platform provided by Glenn Whelan and a galvanised James McCarthy that allowed Brady and Seamus Coleman to get across the halfway line on a regular basis, with Hoolahan's intelligent forays inside freeing up the room.

Obsess

There is a tendency to obsess over formations, to get bogged down in whether the strategy will be a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 or whatever.

Under O'Neill, there is a flexibility that didn't previously exist and the deployment of Hoolahan wide - which leaves Ireland narrow on one flank - offers a new twist.

In the course of Sunday, he had stints as a 'No 10', on both flank and finally in central midfield with four attackers on the pitch ahead of him. It's a crying shame that his international career is only properly beginning two months shy of his 33rd birthday

The Keane dilemma is straightforward in comparison: he can only effectively function with another striker next to him. O'Neill left him on in the belief a chance would materialise.

"You still feel as if Robbie, although maybe tiring a little bit, might just sniff out a chance at the edge of the box," he explained.

Profligacy has made it hard for O'Neill to trust Long and the sub's snaffling of an overdue competitive goal could prove a turning point for his Irish career, possibly at the expense of Keane.

That debate will continue and O'Neill will be fine with that. He knows that a very different discussion would be under way if the Southampton striker hadn't come to the rescue - the type of inquest that will be launched if this group fall short of the Scottish target.

 

Win, lose or draw  v Scotland  what will it mean

Win

This puts Ireland back in a strong position. Assuming that Poland and Germany beat Georgia and Gibraltar respectively in June, this would leave Ireland third heading into the summer - a point clear of the Scots - and with two extremely winnable September games against the group's poorest sides, it guarantees competitive involvement heading into the final double header.

The Scots make the journey to Tbilisi in September and then host the Germans, so Ireland could end up extending the advantage over their Celtic rivals.

In terms of automatic qualification, it's still likely that a win in Warsaw on the final day would be required.

Draw

Poland and Germany would be slipping out of sight at the top and Scotland would be two points ahead going into the summer with a better head-to-head record which means they would finish ahead of Ireland if the teams finished level at the end of the campaign.

In this scenario, Ireland need Gordon Strachan's side to take a total of just two points from their trip to Tbilisi, and home games with Germany and Poland.

That would leave Martin O'Neill's side in a situation where two draws in the final double header with the top two would secure third and a play-off. It may not be as daunting if they're both already bound for France.

Lose

There is really no positive slant on this scenario. Ireland would be out of the qualification equation completely barring what would have to be a dramatic turn of events. A complete collapse from either Poland or Scotland would be required.

For example, the Scots would have to lose their next three matches and even then Ireland would have to either take full points from Germany's trip to Dublin or the jaunt to Warsaw.

In the Polish meltdown scenario, they'd likely have to lose at home to Georgia and away to the Germans and the Scots in order for O'Neill's men to have a chance of overhauling them on head-to-head with victory on October 11.

If, as expected, they secure a good result at home to the Georgians, Ireland would have to match it against the Germans to keep the dream alive.

Irish Independent


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