Friday 15 December 2017

Honeymoon isn't over but Martin O'Neill needs a victory

Martin O'Neill is still searching for his first victory as Ireland manager. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Martin O'Neill is still searching for his first victory as Ireland manager. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Is the honeymoon over? The question has been asked since Ireland suffered a second successive defeat under Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane against Turkey on Sunday.

Given the hype that surrounded the appointment of the new management team, it is a reasonable query, especially in light of the flat atmosphere around the Aviva Stadium.

The counterpoint, however, is that it would be hard to sustain any kind of honeymoon for 10 months, which is the distance between their arrival and a first competitive match in Georgia.

The results of friendly matches haven't necessarily served as an indicator of what's to come in the serious business for O'Neill's predecessors, and the indifference the public feels towards these exhibition matches was illustrated by the weekend turnout.

Still, while the debate about the merit of these fixtures will go on, the FAI could do with generating some positive publicity from the remaining three matches of this gathering.

There are boxes that O'Neill can tick to bring the good vibes into the summer.

GET A WIN

It is blindingly obvious, of course, but going the rest of the summer window without a victory would mean that Ireland would head into September on a six-game winless run, taking in last November's draw with Poland.

Aside from the obvious financial benefits to these fixtures, O'Neill has been quick to stress that he could have sought different opposition if he was desperate to simply rack up positive results.

However, in terms of generating momentum, another Aviva reverse on Sunday was a big disappointment considering that improving home form is a necessity for the new regime.

On paper, the Philadelphia meeting with Costa Rica offers the best chance of a morale-boosting success.

Italy and Portugal boast top-class panels readying themselves for major tournaments, but results will be ranked below preserving fitness in their list of priorities and the New York date with Portugal on June 10 comes just six days before their crucial World Cup opener with Germany.

Given that Cristiano Ronaldo has played through injuries in the final weeks of his hectic club season, it wouldn't be a surprise if there was an experimental flavour to that side.

A 'shock win' would be the simplest way to bring the good vibes into the summer, although the caveat to citing Italian and Portuguese squad rotation is that O'Neill will also have to shuffle his pack.

PRODUCE GOAL FROM MIDFIELD

The stats are damning. Keith Andrews' header against Estonia in November 2011 is the last competitive goal scored by an Ireland central midfielder.

Ireland's aborted mission to reach Brazil was hindered by a reliance on front men; the pair of goals against Austria from Jon Walters, a striker deployed on the right wing, were the only scoring contribution from any midfield position. James McCarthy is Ireland's most assured engine-room operator, but he's still waiting for a first international strike.

His last-day effort at Hull finally broke his Everton duck, so that's hopefully a pointer to the future.

Glenn Whelan, his regular Ireland partner, scored twice in his first campaign, but has fired blanks since his thunderbolt against Italy in October 2009.

The defensive brief has made it hard for those players to consistently get into advanced positions and it's an issue for O'Neill to address.

McCarthy will start in September, but the absence of the Everton man for this entire trip and Whelan for Saturday invites the scope for midfield experimentation.

David Meyler, who struck four goals for Hull this term, will come into the frame.

So, too, will Jeff Hendrick, a player that recovered from an injury-laden first half to the campaign to score five times on the run-in for an exciting Derby side that really should have booked promotion.

The wide men can also do their bit, but the promotion of a player with the ability to surge from deep and threaten the opposition 'keeper would be a real addition to the squad. Hendrick ticks the boxes.

UTILISE SEAMUS COLEMAN

Saturday's clash with Italy at Craven Cottage will be Coleman's last game of the season as he's been excused from travelling to America. It's a venue with relevance to his international development as an outstanding display in a comfortable friendly win there over Oman in September 2012 finally convinced Giovanni Trapattoni to make the Donegal lad a regular.

Coleman is Ireland's most exciting player and it was his trademark burst to set up Shane Long's third that left the happiest memory from O'Neill's first-day dismissal of Latvia.

His last two Ireland appearances have underwhelmed, however, and it hints at the limitation of a right-back being the team's star player.

He can only overlap and attack at will if his side have the platform and control to really bring him into the match.

Bodies in midfield will be required to stifle the Italians, but it would thrill the ex-pats if Coleman could find the freedom to replicate his crowd-pleasing Everton displays.

STICK WITH WES EXPERIMENT

The most underwhelming development in the next three matches would be a reversion to a one-dimensional strategy.

It's clear that O'Neill is trying to put his own stamp on the team by encouraging the use of Wes Hoolahan and the Dubliner's willingness to drop deep and get on the ball facilitates better possession.

That said, the squad is a little bit top heavy in the striking department and with Kevin Doyle and Conor Sammon now with the group ahead of Italy, there is likely to be a discussion about going with two out and out frontmen.

Jon Walters and Daryl Murphy made an impact in the Turkish match, but O'Neill has favoured the same attacking shape with a view to building an understanding between Hoolahan and wingers Aiden McGeady and James McClean.

He did hint after Turkey that the Norwich playmaker can help unlock teams at home, which may mean that he isn't always first-choice on the road.

Still, failing to win a match would be palatable if observers were left with a clear sense that the group are simply trying to adjust to a different way of doing things that will yield results in the long term.

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