Saturday 16 December 2017

Austria 'be-all and end-all' as Uruguay come to town

James McClean gets caught in the middle of the Mexican duo Carlos Salcedo (L) and Rodolfo Cota at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, USA. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
James McClean gets caught in the middle of the Mexican duo Carlos Salcedo (L) and Rodolfo Cota at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, USA. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There's no Luis Suarez and, in truth, the punters who make their way to the Aviva Stadium tomorrow evening will be wondering if Ireland's friendly with Uruguay will really have any bite.

Friendlies in the summer can flatter to deceive. Two years ago, Ireland's eagerly anticipated showdown with England belied pre-match fears of tension by delivering a game that unified both sets of supporters. They shared an understanding that they had been short-changed.

That said, Uruguay offer a bit of novelty value, even though they were in Dublin just six years ago. On that occasion, four goals were scored in a lively first half - three of them by the guests - and the paying public were given some bang for their buck. It was the visitors who effectively set the tone.

Martin O'Neill has been quite straight about the fact that he has approached this international period with only one result in mind, and that's next Sunday's World Cup qualifier with Austria.

"This is not an act," he said in the aftermath of a losing start to this summer window against Mexico on Thursday night. "I've always told you how I felt about the friendly games."


The early stages of the Mexican encounter were particularly haphazard, with a new formation featuring square pegs in round holes.

"Most of the things that happened, I kind of expected," said the 65-year-old in the aftermath.

Tomorrow's selection should have a more familiar look but, in practical terms, the window of preparation is tight considering the squad that travelled to America only arrived into Dublin yesterday afternoon.

They were joined by nine players - the Premier League contingent plus Jonny Hayes, Keiren Westwood and Aiden McGeady - and the only proper training session for the group ahead of Uruguay will be today. Stephen Quinn is also in for a few days after a grim season, while Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter are only due in tomorrow.

"We won't be able to do much before Sunday but look, it's a total build-up to the Austria game. That's what I want. I'm not deflated," said O'Neill.

Upbeat would be a fair description of his mood before the flight home, reluctant to dwell on the negatives. Individual errors bugged him more than any problems posed by a new system.

"The first goal we conceded is from a corner. It's disappointing but it's not the end of the world," he said, pointing to the fact that his Championship players had been out of action since May 7 or longer in some cases.

"For us to step into an international against a team like Mexico who have a couple of World Cup games and the Confederations Cup coming up… well hopefully, we can do better (against Uruguay).

"In terms of the physical aspect, that Mexico game will bring us on. And I prefer these tests, I prefer the players to be in against something, rather than taking a relatively easy game - for us - and getting a false confidence about yourself.

"It's best to go and play these games, they are difficult matches and it's all preparation for Austria."

Shane Duffy is the key Irish man who needed it most and he looked extremely rusty on his first outing since March 4.

O'Neill was just happy that he came through unscathed; the same comment applied to Daryl Murphy, who has been plagued by calf issues since scoring a vital equaliser in Serbia last September.

But Duffy's scatty display is a concern given that he's a first-choice central defender when fully fit.

He was extremely impressive for Brighton before suffering a broken foot that ended his season; Thursday night's effort was closer to his erratic showings for Blackburn last August when his club future was up in the air.

The player himself came out afterwards and said he would be fine for when it counted, adding that it would be different when a couple more recognisable faces were around.

"Listen, it's going to be a different thing altogether against Austria," said Duffy. "Out there (in the US) we wouldn't have had a lot of experience and it can be tough. It was just an exercise in getting fit.

"You're thrown into a new formation and you have to try and handle it as best as you can. Austria is the huge game, our biggest of the campaign. We always produce in the big games and we have confidence that we can do the same again."

It's entering the realms of speculation to take a stab at what sort of team will face the Uruguayans.

Burnley trio Stephen Ward, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady should be sharp after a busy campaign. At least one of them should start to give a Dublin presence in the first XI. Strangely enough, the starting team in Meadowlands was minus a player from the capital - the last time that happened was the infamous reverse to Macedonia in 1997.

Thursday's skipper James McClean will be keen for another outing, although John O'Shea is available to wear the armband.

A couple of the newer players involved in New Jersey deserve another spin in their favoured positions; Daryl Horgan and Callum O'Dowda should be fresh enough to figure again at some point.

Darren Randolph was given the full 90 and will have benefited after a dormant spell at West Ham. That said, the players who went to the US for no minutes - Colin Doyle, Alex Pearce and Andy Boyle - will feel they deserve a chance too. But as the long wait for Austria reaches the seven-day point, decisions will be more calculated.

"Austria is the be-all and end-all," said O'Neill. The paying public have been warned.

Ireland squad (v Uruguay) - D Randolph, K Westwood, C Doyle; C Christie, A Pearce, R Keogh, S Duffy, J O'Shea, K Long, A Boyle, J Egan, S Ward; A McGeady, E O'Kane, G Whelan, H Arter, C Hourihane, A Browne, R Brady, J Hendrick, D Horgan, W Hoolahan, C O'Dowda, J McClean, J Hayes; J Walters, D Murphy, D McGoldrick.

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