Wednesday 21 March 2018

Comment - Gareth Bale injury news gives Irish camp the boost it badly needs

O'Neill's players are unlikely to admit it but Welsh difficulty is Ireland's opportunity

Gareth Bale in action for Wales against Shane Long during the qualifier in Dublin. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Gareth Bale in action for Wales against Shane Long during the qualifier in Dublin. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It would be daft for any member of the Irish camp to come out and publicly herald the news of Gareth Bale's injury woe.

Such a move would merely help Chris Coleman's team-talk in preparation for the concluding Group D encounter in Cardiff on Monday.

And there is logic in sounding a cautionary note before completely over-reacting to the news that the Real Madrid star will be absent for Wales' final two games starting with Friday's tricky test in Georgia.

The hosts still have Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen and players that would be very welcome in Martin O'Neill's camp. In June, they went to Serbia without Bale and drew with the group leaders. It wouldn't have been a travesty if they won that game. Wales minus Bale are still a superior operation to the Georgian outfit that snookered Ireland in Tbilisi.

These are valid points that will be trotted out once Friday's game with Moldova is out of the way. And that, of course, is part one of the mission. Roy Keane made that point yesterday but added a realistic addendum to the 'right thing to say' statement.

"I wouldn't mind having this conversation after Friday's game," he said. "Honestly, the whole mindset now for us is Friday.

"But if you don't beat Moldova at home, you shouldn't be expecting to qualify for too many tournaments."


Once that box is ticked, attention can formally turn to Wales. And while the permutations in the other groups have the ability to really deflate excitement levels ahead of the fixture, there's no doubting that Bale's unavailability makes the task away to the top seeds considerably less daunting.

There was a fear factor around Bale that was evident in the scoreless draw in Dublin in March. As it happens, Ireland dealt with him quite well in a game where he was fortunate to avoid a red card for a late challenge on John O'Shea - although he almost nabbed a late winner when he slipped into space and unleashed a shot from distance that showed what could happen with a split-second loss of concentration.

Managing the 28-year-old was clearly a big part of the Irish strategy in the stalemate. With John O'Shea and Richard Keogh at centre-half, Ireland were cagey and made sure they weren't stretched as the Bale factor was evidently always to the forefront of the mind. It contributed to a conservative and scrappy game that will only ever be remembered for Seamus Coleman's heartbreak.

Wales still have good players but it's a different story committing bodies when the cost of an attack breaking down is worrying about what Hal Robson-Kanu or Sam Vokes can do on the break.

Ramsey is still a quality player and Allen controlled spells in Dublin but Ireland will feel they can cut down the supply line if they work hard enough.

They will not be shouting it from the rooftops but it's a major help to Irish preparations. The Serbia match was the only time in four years that the Welsh entered a competitive game without their talisman.

Prior to that, their record when he has been unavailable is poor. Since he's come on the scene, they've won two from 12 without him. Wales have to go for victory on Monday too - the situation was perhaps slightly different in Belgrade - so they will have to devise a new plan in a short space of time and before then they have to grapple with Georgia and cope with the recovery from that trip.

Wales v Ireland is ultimately a low-level Premier League or high end Championship encounter - and that perhaps involves a kind interpretation of the respective dressing-rooms' collective merits - but Bale's presence was the asterisk to that comparison.

Now it stands up. This can swing either way and, with the right plan, Ireland can secure the six-point finish to the group.

Understandably enough, Keane swatted away any suggestion that it had openly lifted the mood around the team hotel. Daryl Murphy claimed to not be aware of the Bale news when he spoke to the press immediately after training.

"This idea of a buzz and that we were going around knocking each other's doors and hugging each other! Jaysus," Keane said. "I always think that if you want players to be missing in public then you are being very disrespectful to other players by saying, 'Oh Bale's missing'.

"This idea that there is some sort of buzz around, I think you are way off the mark with that."

But privately, though, it's only natural that it will have an impact on the Irish mindset. O'Neill's men have ballsed up an incredibly promising position and there's no sugar-coating that.

David Meyler valiantly claimed on Monday that the media had created the doom and gloom that hung in the air after the September double-header. It brought to mind that old line about the press being to blame because they printed the results.

There were downbeat missives from the Irish camp that fuelled the melancholy. Ireland's star, Seamus Coleman, was mentioned on more than one occasion by O'Neill.


It was clear that he was tracing the dots back to the loss of his captain.

Throw in the disallowed goal at the end of the Austria match and subsequent complaints about the referee and there was a sense that the Irish camp felt events were conspiring against them.

Somewhere along the way, momentum has been completely lost. Panic was the prevailing mood in the dying stages of the Serbian match. The World Cup dream was quite visibly slipping away in the final couple of minutes and everyone in the ground knew it.

However, the mood has been a tad more positive than expected this week. Throwing a couple of new faces into the mix has perked things up with Scott Hogan, Sean Maguire and Aiden O'Brien bringing fresh energy.

O'Neill and Keane have been chirpy too, rather than giving off the vibe that the end is nigh. That's easily said before a ball is kicked of course, both in Ireland's group and the others where favourable outcomes are required to make Monday relevant.

Still, the winless 2017 has packed the road to Russia with significant obstacles. Expectations have lowered but Bale's misfortune offers a glimmer of hope. If that doesn't put a spring in the step, then nothing will.

Irish Independent

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