Saturday 17 March 2018

Striking dilemma hints at perils as Ireland weigh up serious forward planning

Lack of friendly fire not a major issue now but would cause concern at Euros, writes David Kelly

Shane Long. Photo: Sportsfile
Shane Long. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Martin O'Neill is discussing, in the now familiar, beguilingly eccentric manner of his, the difference between friendlies and tournament football.

The context carries itself upon a benign, mild wind; 11 games unbeaten, three opponents above them in the purportedly accurate world rankings summarily despatched with nose bleeds, and Euro 2016 qualification secured.

Aside from their recently discovered gift to sacrilegious imbibers, few ever fret about friendlies except those intimately involved; O'Neill was also keen to point out what, to him, was also a compelling and enduring difference.

So enduring, indeed, that he seemed to momentarily forget how long it had endured in his mind.

"The tournament will be different," he tells us pointedly over startled spectacles, attempting to arrest - successfully it must be argued - any potential for the Irish public to lose the run of themselves ahead of France 2016.

"It's nice to go into games having won rather than lost because you don't feel good when you lose. You wake up on Saturday and you have a nicer feeling. It's better to go in on a high rather than losing games.

"But the summer will be different. There will be games in quick succession. I'm only thinking back to my days. Football hasn't changed much in 25 years."

While the rest of us aged 10 years watching last Friday's friendly ahead of the inevitable addition of another decade this evening, O'Neill briefly dons Benjamin Button garb.

O'Neill, 59 - he was 64 before the press briefing but what's five years between friends? - was referring directly to the mental health of his squad as they seek to mine out another result this evening.

Mood music always sounds sweeter with a winning tune. Unlike the austere and ascetic, sceptic extraordinaire Giovanni Trapattoni, O'Neill is keen to infuse his players with confidence, so that they may have more self-belief in possession.

But it is the physical health of some of its members which will concern him more.

As Dublin is awash with Luas strikers, Ireland train with merely one.

All of which shouldn't really matter ahead of an inconsequential March friendly but O'Neill's reference to tournament football and its claustrophobic nature reminds one that, as Ciaran Clark sagely opined, football can be a funny game.

O'Neill confirmed that Clark is unlikely to play this evening, rendering his appearance at a second press briefing since Friday's game an utter irrelevance - "He's here because I like him," deadpanned O'Neill.

But the fact that he did score the only goal in a game bereft of striking impact reminds one that, for Ireland to prosper against superior opponents, the need to have live scoring options up front remains, well, striking.

Keane and Walters scored 10 goals between them during qualifying and if their absence now, for example, were replicated in the summer, then O'Neill would be faced with quite the conundrum.

Daryl Murphy was prolific last season, not this, and thus an inordinate responsibility would fall upon the shoulders of Shane Long (pictured); a man for whom short memories conjure up the wonder of a winner against the world champions but for those with longer memories prompt recall of a worrying conversion rate.

O'Neill may, in the short-term, turn to James McClean as an option; Wes Hoolahan didn't start on Friday so Ireland will revert to the comforting presence of three, rather than two, bodies in midfield.

If O'Neill ruled anything out on Friday, then 4-4-2 was it.

The fundamental point is that O'Neill will have already ruled many things out; in reality, all but two, at a stretch, three places in the 23-man tournament squad are nailed on.

The luckless Doyle leads an undistinguished list of those on the outside of the tent grappling to get in; four years ago, Trapattoni's favourite mascot, Andy Keogh, ended up on standby.

Who can be an Andy Keogh now? (Er, apart from Andy Keogh, who has just broken an A-League record by scoring in seven consecutive games!) Keane has already been picking O'Neill's vast football brain as he ponders a coaching career; he has already begun in this campaign, sharing tit-bits with his colleagues as he became increasingly more dispensable.

This weekend has demonstrated how swiftly that scenario can change.

Hence O'Neill's confirmation that if Keane is in France it will be as a competitor, not a mascot; in truth, the absence of rivalry ends the debate before it starts.

Clark spoke languidly about the proverbial "competition" for places; the irony is that while Ireland's central defensive options have never been stronger, it is at the other end they may struggle, especially if goals don't come from midfield.

Tonight hints at the perils of tournament football.

On the other hand, Long proved that just one goal can be enough against the world champions. Tonight we may see if just one striker is enough.

Irish Independent

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