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O'Neill looks at bigger picture as Oman test bridges gap to Georgia

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Ireland manager Martin O'Neill will prioritise game-time in the friendly against Oman for those in his squad who have not been involved with their clubs over the past month. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill will prioritise game-time in the friendly against Oman for those in his squad who have not been involved with their clubs over the past month. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill will prioritise game-time in the friendly against Oman for those in his squad who have not been involved with their clubs over the past month. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

After 10 months of waiting around for a meaningful encounter, the imposition of a game with Oman en route to Sunday's test in Tbilisi provides Martin O'Neill with one last contrast between friendly fire and the serious business.

The visit of the Gulf nation is a hard sell at any time of the year and the organisers will be hoping that the onset of a fresh campaign will draw punters out regardless of the opposition.

Still, even if large swathes of the paying public may see no benefit in attending, the Ireland boss intends to derive some use from the opportunity especially considering that the August date has been taken off the calendar.

The Derryman will take no major risks in terms of selection and prioritise game-time for those who have not been involved with their clubs for whatever reason over the past month.

Some calls will have more relevance for Georgia than others. Shay Given will audition but Darron Gibson gets a chance to impress while effectively keeping the seat warm for James McCarthy who is rested as a precaution due to blisters.

In the wide department, however, there looks to be a place up for grabs with James McClean battling to prove his fitness.

"I think Wigan are obviously concerned about him going in," said O'Neill, who would like to involve his fellow countyman at some point. "We'll see. He hasn't had that much contact football."

Setback

While Aiden McGeady is secure in his standing, a setback for McClean would alert Anthony Pilkington or Robbie Brady.

The latter, like Gibson, has missed all of the O'Neill era to this juncture. "Robbie looks as if he's got over those injury problems he's had and he's feeling pretty good," O'Neill asserted. "He's got a lot of talent."

Jon Walters, a possibility for two positions, stepped out of training and is a major doubt. Joey O'Brien, who has been prevented from staking his claim at left-back by injury, returned to West Ham with a knee issue that has ruled him out of both games.

Robbie Keane looked in trouble a week ago and only flew in from Los Angeles on Monday night but his enthusiasm for international football is such that he was out on the training ground for a sprightly morning session which was led vocally by the order of his namesake Roy.

O'Neill is mulling over whether to include the Tallaght man in his Oman plans with Shane Long, Crystal Palace loan recruit Kevin Doyle and the deployment of Wes Hoolahan other matters to be factored in.

Long is in another category of players that could use this hurdle to build confidence as opposed to fitness. The Tipp lad has figured for his new club Southampton yet he would likely appreciate the opportunity to erase the memory of some misfiring Aviva displays under the new regime.

The flip side of those struggles is that he actually struck up a good understanding with Hoolahan in terms of finding space and creating openings. Poor finishing let him down. O'Neill seemed cool on a suggestion that he might follow the lead of Ronald Koeman and deploy the 27-year-old out wide.

"It hasn't influenced my thinking," he said, "Shane essentially wants to play centre-forward anyway and I think that's where he feels most comfortable."

The striking discussion will certainly figure prominently in the Georgia preliminaries and it would be a timely moment for one of the players in that debate to remind O'Neill of their abilities. That said, there is no real comparison between the test presented by Paul Le Guen's side on an autumn Dublin evening and the anticipated ferocious reception in the heat of Tbilisi.

O'Neill did make fleeting reference to formational shifts in passing, touching on the 3-5-2 trend which was popular in the World Cup and was part of his modus operandi with Leicester and Celtic. "What we hope to try and do this week is be a little more flexible," he said.

"These are things you have to work on although with the length of time we have it is not always feasible. But we would like a few formations so people don't feel it's an alien concept if we have to try and adapt."

The pattern of the game will dictate the extent to which rotation is possible. O'Neill was not perturbed by a summer gathering without a victory but this fixture does offer a welcome opportunity to end the six-game winless run since his opening-night success over Latvia.

More significantly, there's a vital match in view which can sharpen minds to the bigger picture. "It's a long road ahead," O'Neill asserted, "And it's a glorious place at the end of it and that's where we want to go."

Irish Independent