Saturday 24 March 2018

Richie Sadlier: More comforting to pin our hopes on rivals losing than on Ireland winning

'O'Neill's teams are difficult to predict and his formations vary. That in itself is no reason for concern, but there still hasn't been a performance that gives cause for great hope'
'O'Neill's teams are difficult to predict and his formations vary. That in itself is no reason for concern, but there still hasn't been a performance that gives cause for great hope'
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

The best day yet in this qualifying campaign for Ireland came as the result of a game the team wasn't involved in. It's great to be in a position to profit from the mistakes of other teams, but it's now up to Ireland to take on the responsibility for themselves.

If we're being honest, though, there's a shortage of reasons to be convinced that that is what will now happen.

The Gibraltar game on Friday was international football's version of a non-event. The win was guaranteed before a ball was kicked. The clean sheet was a virtual certainty, too. It didn't matter who Martin O'Neill selected or what he asked them to do, there was no way Ireland would return to Dublin without all three points. Play with two up front or three? Give Darren Randolph a start? Maybe try Shay Given at centre-half? It doesn't matter, Ireland were always going to win.

It's no longer true to say there are no easy games in international football. Having Gibraltar in your group is the equivalent to starting with six points.

So, the renewed sense of optimism surrounding Ireland's qualification hopes is the direct result of the failings of others. In other words, Scotland blew it. Without creating one shot on target in the whole 90 minutes in Tbilisi, they became the first of the four top teams in the group to drop points to Georgia.

They'll now be hoping Ireland do the same tomorrow evening in the Aviva, something which can't be discounted entirely. Scotland now find themselves in the same boat we were in on Friday night.

It's all well and good to be excited by the slip-ups of your rivals, but at some point you've got to do the business yourself. Ireland have yet to show signs of significant improvement under Martin O'Neill. In fact, some would struggle to point to any improvements.

Take Friday's performance in Portugal, for example. The midfield is still lacking someone who can take control of a game. There's still nobody prepared to get on the ball and create something themselves.

Even in the comfortable position of a 3-0 lead against part-time players, all of whom are still in pre-season training with their clubs, therefore lacking in match fitness, Ireland failed to retain the ball with any degree of comfort. That shouldn't be happening.

Putting aside Ireland's limitations, the result in Georgia must have given the players a huge psychological boost going into tomorrow's game. A play-off spot is in their own hands now. They'll be doing exactly what the rest of us have been doing since Friday, privately working out the various permutations of how this group will unfold. Scotland could be four points behind Ireland if results go to plan on Monday evening. And who knows, maybe Ireland won't need any more points after that to finish above them? If Poland beat Scotland in the next round of games, Ireland will finish third. You wouldn't mind being the team relying on a Scotland collapse to progress.

However, Georgia showed on Friday what they can do if you under-perform against them and Scotland showed how hard it is to know what to expect from them. Let's not forget how unimpressive Ireland were in the opening game in Tbilisi and how fortunate they were to come away with the win.

'Twists and turns' is a phrase we'll be using a lot from now on, but drawing confidence from watching Ireland is still hard to do. It's easier to focus on predicting defeat for others than to pin hopes on Irish victories in the final two games.

For now, though, it's all about the Georgia game tomorrow night. It's about dealing with the heightened expectations and the greater costs of slipping up. It's about handling the crowd's reaction if things don't go well or the pressure of people assuming it'll be a comfortable win.

It's a funny thing, pressure. Even though the results went Ireland's way on Friday, now it's as if there's something to lose and the stakes are huge. An expectant crowd will be there tomorrow night. Not everyone is comfortable playing in scenarios like this.

Scotland manager Gordon Strachan had this to say to Sky Sports on Friday: "What is the real Scotland? I'll have to find out exactly what that is. As far as I'm concerned just now, we do not have a trademark style of play." Those words wouldn't be out of place if they came from O'Neill about his squad.

O'Neill's teams are difficult to predict and his formations vary. That in itself is no reason for concern, but there still hasn't been a performance that gives cause for great hope.

Maybe it will come tomorrow night. Maybe it will come in the final two games.

At some point, the real Ireland will have to emerge. If it's the one we've been seeing up until now, though, they won't be going to France.

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