Tuesday 11 December 2018

Comment: Long wait for an Irish goalscorer a real issue

Without a proven finisher in his squad, O'Neill may have to think outside the box

Long wait: It’s three years this week since Shane Long’s famous winner against Germany. Photo: Sportsfile
Long wait: It’s three years this week since Shane Long’s famous winner against Germany. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There will be a time when we go through a full Irish international week without Robbie Keane being mentioned.

The emergence of a regular goalscorer would help that mission.

Martin O'Neill tends to bring up Ireland's record marksman on a consistent basis, however, and he came up again ahead of the crucial Aviva Stadium double-header with Denmark and Wales.

Three years have passed since Keane was benched by O'Neill for a game of substance. It actually resulted in arguably the most memorable goal at the renovated venue.

Shane Long's stunning strike to down Germany got Ireland's Euro 2016 campaign back on track and there were symbolic post-match scenes when Keane was the first on to the pitch to greet the hero of the hour.

The passing of the torch has not really materialised, though. With Jon Walters out of the equation through injury and Daryl Murphy retired, Long is now the senior man in the forward department.

He's actually a niggling injury doubt for Saturday due to an ankle problem and sat out training again yesterday.

Long can offer a lot in terms of making life difficult for opponents, but it's safe to say at this stage that the 31-year-old will never guarantee goals.

His last meaningful strike for Ireland was against Moldova two years ago, while he struck just twice for Southampton last term.

O'Neill favoured Murphy in the dying stages of the World Cup tilt and management have never seemed fully convinced by the Tipperary man.

Problem

The alternative options are seriously unproven, and it's a problem either way for the Derryman as he devises a plan for the week ahead.

Sean Maguire, Callum Robinson, Aiden O'Brien and Scott Hogan have all made their Irish debuts in the past 12 months and have a total of six caps between them.

O'Brien's header in Wroclaw last month is the only goal; and he normally plays wide for his club Millwall.

Robinson is a new recruit, while Hogan and Maguire have endured a stop-start period in their respective careers.

In the absence of an obvious out-and-out lead man, O'Neill has not really been able to work on combinations as the prospective options have all been out of the equation due to injury at various times.

Graham Burke was cut from this gathering due to his Preston struggles, while the in-form Ronan Curtis has been left with the U-21 side this time around.

For O'Neill, it's a conundrum. "My issues up front have been the same as they have been for five games, honestly," he said, which shines a light on his perception of Long's natural instincts.

The discussion of an experiment with a 3-5-2 formation raises the possibility that he will have to look to the system to heal his woes rather than relying on a talismanic figure.

He paired Hogan and Maguire in Turkey as his intention was to get two strikers on the pitch. O'Brien dovetailed reasonably well with Robinson in Poland considering they'd never played together before. A mix and match could be the way to go.

The slight complication comes from the belief that the wing-back system does not quite suit James McClean's strengths and it's possible he could be used as one of a front pair if there's a switch in strategy.

O'Neill wanted Walters to stick around for a reason, and Ireland are used to profiting from the threat delivered by a big man.

Keane would never have enjoyed the success he did without the understanding he enjoyed with strike partners; the Dubliner found it hard in latter years where he was isolated.

The most impressive aspect of O'Brien's debut was the hold-up play - this has been flagged as a weakness for Long.

In his defence, there have been games where his speed has encouraged colleagues to go very direct and send him down the flanks with a view to creating openings for others.

Inadequacies elsewhere have made the role of the Irish central striker a thankless task; they don't always get in the box for reasons beyond their control.

There is excitement about players coming through the ranks with Adam Idah and Troy Parrott on the scoresheet yesterday after their promotion from U-17 to U-19 level. But they are still only kids.

Without a striking star in his current ranks, O'Neill may just have to commit to going with two instead of one.

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