Sunday 27 May 2018

A gilt-edged chance to seize control

Ireland are on a high but, as O'Neill warned on Wednesday night, it can go one of two ways. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland are on a high but, as O'Neill warned on Wednesday night, it can go one of two ways. Photo: Sportsfile
'A few of the Irish players didn't know that Chelsea's Nemanja Matic is suspended for this game'. Photo: Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

For most of the past week, Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane have primarily concerned themselves with one task: watching. They were keeping eyes out for any little signs in training that the intensity had dropped, that the relative success of Euro 2016 had sapped any vigour.

The players of course knew. As Keiren Westwood explained after the 4-0 win over Oman, "I don't think Martin needs to say anything. He will just look at you and you know what he is thinking."

Those close to the squad say that, for all the fun and good humour at training over the last few days, there has also been an edge, albeit a positive one. By Thursday morning, they were all ready for the real work. They were ready to get back on what Keane has been describing as "the rollercoaster".

"I keep using the word," the assistant manager said. "There are going to be ups and downs. [In the last campaign] massive highs against Germany, a massive disappointment against Scotland, where people say you're out of it, then you're back in it, then you're in the play-offs, tough draw in Bosnia, then we're in the Euros. Can you get out of the group? It's just been tough. It feels like we've been with the squad 20 years. I don't know how Jack did it!"

The aim now, fittingly enough, is to do something that hasn't been achieved since Charlton did it 28 years ago - to qualify for successive tournaments.

Ireland are on a high but, as O'Neill warned on Wednesday night, it can go one of two ways. The circumstances could be there for a defeat as deflating as the 4-2 loss in Russia straight after the 2002 World Cup.

Because, if there is one thing that has been talked about almost as much as the hunger of the squad after Euro 2016 - as well as Robbie Keane's farewell and O'Neill's curious unsigned contract situation - it is how difficult an opening game a trip to Belgrade is. A decent Serbia have only really been discussed with a respectful caution.

But the Balkan side are at a real low themselves. A few of the Irish players didn't even know that Chelsea's Nemanja Matic is suspended for this game, for example, but that is just one of many problems and challenges Serbia face.

After a controversial and turbulent Euro 2016 qualifying campaign that saw them finish a distant fourth in a five-team group, the national federation have made their seventh managerial change in six years, bringing in Slavoljub Muslin. If that reflects a struggle to figure out an identity for a team that haven't qualified for anything since 2010, it is made all the worse by the fact the fans don't really identify with them as a squad.

Many around the Irish camp have referenced the atmosphere in the away leg of the play-off with Bosnia and Herzegovina as perfect preparation for this match, but it is an imperfect comparison. There just isn't the same emotional investment as their neighbours have. For supporters in Belgrade, the national team are a distant third behind the Partizan-Red Star rivalry and then basketball, with the disconnect deepened by bad results and bad temper around the squad.

So much dissatisfaction exploded in the last Euro 2016 qualification match against Portugal, when Aleksandar Kolarov's dissent and Matic's elbow saw them both receive the red cards that leave them suspended for this match.

It says much about the state of the side, though, that both have decided to travel for this game anyway to try to create the right atmosphere of togetherness around the new regime from the start. And because they know the squad need it.

"They wanted to be with the team," Muslin said last week. "They wanted to be in the same environment as they want to help in any way they can."

If those words strike an oddly desperate tone for an opening game, that's because this match is seen in Serbia as something like to a play-off - a play-off for support. A win will foster the feeling that this time it really is different. If they draw or lose, though, it will feel over before it's even begun. People won't care. There is that much pressure.

That is why it's an opportunity for Ireland. Against understrength and unsteady opponents, there is a chance to claim an unexpected away win and steal ahead of Austria and Wales in what is likely to be a tight group where only one side is guaranteed to get out of it. A start like that could have a huge effect on how the group finishes. It's also a chance to change how Ireland usually do these things, and properly seize a situation in a way we've rarely seen.

It was something Keane discussed on Friday, if not quite in the same thunderous tones he famously did after the 2-2 draw in the Netherlands back in September 2000.

"It's very hard to predict," the assistant manager said of the group. "You have to try and win your home matches and pick up results away from home, which is never easy, particularly if you're Ireland. We've never been ones for going away from home and getting positive results. When I say positive results, I mean in terms of beating teams on a regular basis. Far from it. I don't think it's ever happened in my time involved with Ireland. It's very, very difficult."

It's a situation further skewed by the fact there is no heavyweight like Germany in the group. But do the squad really believe topping the group is possible for a side like Ireland, for the first time since Euro 88? How they react in Belgrade will tell a lot in that regard.

Satisfaction with a cagey draw, for example, might be a little underwhelming. That isn't to say any failure to win should be damned, but it is almost about approach, about willingness. One of the great positives of Euro 2016, after all, was how O'Neill gradually incorporated an exciting attacking intensity into their solid competitiveness. They were a team willing to have a go again, to put 'em under pressure, as Keane said in France.

It would feel a shame to just sit back now because this is notionally an awkward away game. Serbia officially lost three of their four home games in the Euro 2016, although the first was abandoned after 42 minutes due to the infamous trouble that saw Albania awarded a 3-0 win, and the second was a 3-1 defeat to Denmark behind closed doors.

Because of all that, and the fact the best available player in the team is Branislav Ivanovic, Muslin is likely to begin this cautiously himself. He hasn't exactly gone gung-ho in terms of personnel, so far only bringing through five of Serbia's 2015 under 20 world champions.

Who O'Neill selects in his own midfield, meanwhile, will immediately say much about his intentions. That has become the area of the team with more options and possible configurations than any other, allowing a lot of variation in approach. He can go very defensive, by putting in Glenn Whelan and Stephen Quinn, or go for it with Harry Arter, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick.

O'Neill's choice will quickly cut to the heart of all of this, revealing so much about the approach to the group and approach of the team after Euro 2016. Keane did, typically, put the latter into perspective.

"We didn't bloody win it . . . I thought we gave it our best. We certainly weren't ready to come back when we did."

That last sentence is perhaps key. It's up to this Ireland to show that, to show they have more to give, to seize an opportunity and use the high to go further. Arter missed Euro 2016 but has immediately picked up the right tone.

"I look at the group and I think we've definitely got a very good chance of qualifying," he said. "There's obviously going to be tough games in that, but there's a real excitement that we're in the squad and everyone's looking forward to the games. The mindset is really clear, we want to go there and win."

It may be essential to actually winning this group.

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