Wednesday 21 March 2018

Steven Reid: We need to beat Poland to qualify and not sneak in via the side door

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill gets thrown in the air by his players during the celebrations after the game
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill gets thrown in the air by his players during the celebrations after the game
Steven Reid

Steven Reid

As soon as he was appointed, I thought O'Neill would guide Ireland to the European Championships. And they have - Michael O'Neill and Northern Ireland that is.

As for Martin and the Republic, it can happen for them too. There have been so many lifelines already - that last-minute winner in Georgia, those late equalisers against Germany and Poland, those Scotland defeats last month. It seemed over in June. Yet it wasn't. We're still alive.

And now we need to do something this weekend that you would have taken when this draw was made. We need to smash down the door to qualify, not to sneak in via the side door.

And it'll suit us. Win and we're through. The play-offs seemed like a nice idea yesterday lunchtime but check our record in previous play-offs. Unless we get an easy draw - Iran in 2001, Estonia in 2011 - we lose. And believe me, there are some tough teams waiting in the play-offs.

So give me Sunday's scenario. Give me Poland and a win to guarantee that we get through. Give me a reason to get excited because whether we like it or not, this had been a dour campaign. Until the 70th minute of last night's match, that is. Until then there just has not been enough to get the fans buzzing.

Think back to history, to the wins over Spain in 1965, Czechoslovakia in 1967, France in 1972, 1978, 1981, Holland in 1980, 2001, Croatia, Yugoslavia, England, Italy, Spain, the USSR (twice), Scotland in '87, Portugal in '95. What did those wins do? It got the fans behind the team. It gave them something to shout about, something to talk about in work, some hope to cling to.

We needed it to happen again. This era of Irish footballers needed to have their Jason McAteer, Ray Houghton or Packie Bonner moment. And Shane Long gave it to them.

He is this generation what Don Givens was to the 1970s, Frank Stapleton to the 1980s, Paul McGrath to the '90s, Roy Keane, McAteer and Robbie Keane to the noughties.

And I'm thrilled for Shane because he is a selfless player who I would have started but who, I must admit, was held back for a reason. O'Neill wanted him fresh, wanted those lung-bursting runs to cause havoc in the German defence. And he did. His goal was magnificent, not just in its execution but also its timing.

Can he do it again this Sunday? I hope so. Do I think so? Yes. Poland are slightly overrated and that game reminds me of Paris in 2009, a game where no one gives us a chance and where if we just have a go, we could surprise ourselves as well as them.

Shane Long

This goal will be remembered for a Long time. A cracking finish to give the Republic of Ireland a famous victory over Germany.

Posted by RTÉ Soccer on Thursday, October 8, 2015

That was what happened last night. Sure, it wasn't pretty on the eye but from a tactical perspective, O'Neill was clever. Germany effectively instruct their full-backs to become wingers.

That they can do so is down to their absolute belief that they can dominate possession and also to the fact their goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, doubles up as a sweeper. If you have a goalkeeper who can pass the ball as accurately as Neuer, you become a different team.

Your defenders don't have to sit so deeply, your full-backs can hog the sideline and push higher up the pitch, your starting point for attacks can be from the halfway line, rather than from the edge of your penalty area.

This is why I was impressed by O'Neill's conservative tactics. If you face a team who dominate possession, you are left with a Catch 22 scenario. Press high up the pitch and you leave yourself exposed at the back. Hang back and you leave yourself open to being dominated in terms of possession.

That is what Germany did. They teased. They tormented. They set up with a 4-2-3-1 formation and crowded out Wes Hoolahan whenever he had the ball. They got a lucky break - Shay Given's departure - but they just couldn't handle Long's pace.

Every tactical system has its flaw. If you attack too high up the pitch, you can be hit with angled passes. You leave space in behind. And Long exploited it. His run was perfect, his finish was equally as impressive. I would have had him in for the start. Martin preferred to have him as a sub. He played the Long game. And he was vindicated for doing so.

So what happens now?

Glenn Whelan comes back. So too Seamus Coleman. And you have to play them. You have to play Long too.

You have to appreciate that this game will have drained the guys, physically and mentally. You need fresh legs.

And the beauty of O'Neill's rotational policy throughout this campaign is that they are used to players coming in cold and performing. Think of Darren Randolph last night. He was brilliant. So was Stephen Ward. So was Long. What a night. It was like Holland all over again.

Irish Independent

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