Friday 23 March 2018

Daniel McDonnell: O'Neill seeks spirit of Euros to inspire a strong start

Derryman says finals heroes are best-placed to put Ireland on the front foot in Belgrade

“I don’t think it’s possible to start to play for a draw,” O'Neill said, “But I think in this competition every point is going to be valuable.”. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
“I don’t think it’s possible to start to play for a draw,” O'Neill said, “But I think in this competition every point is going to be valuable.”. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's four years since Ireland last visited Belgrade. That visit also came in the shadow of a European Championships, a Polish ordeal that was far less enjoyable than this summer's endeavours in France.

The forgettable August friendly finished scoreless. Shane Long's unhappiness at a wasted trip ­became the big story and, in response, ­Giovanni Trapattoni branded his behaviour idiotic.

Shay Given's first retirement was the talking point at the start of the week. Damien Duff was also gone and Trapattoni engaged in limited experimentation. This was the ­prelude to the autumn where it was clear that he had stayed for one campaign too many. Germany scored six in Dublin to make a lot of people look like idiots.

Martin O'Neill arrives to the Serbian capital in different circumstances.

The Euros was largely a positive experience, with players able to leave with their head held high. ­Retirements have only deprived him of peripheral options, and the 64-year-old has opted against ­wholesale changes because he feels there is momentum that can be carried into a World Cup campaign.

Read more: Steven Reid: Our new generation can't let Euros buzz be just a one-off


"There should be a natural progression," stressed O'Neill, ahead of training at the Rajko Mitic Stadium. "But it doesn't always work like that.

"You look at Holland being in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup and they couldn't get out of their Euros (qualifying) group. But we've not made many changes because the Euros are just over and those players who played very well and have not retired will give this the best possible go."

That theory will be tested here in the heat of Belgrade this evening.

The expectation that Ireland will be greeted by a hostile atmosphere has been questioned by locals who point to poor ticket sales and an ambivalence towards a national side that has underperformed in recent years.

Serbia have to win this match to get the public back on side and their new boss Slavoljub Muslin is under pressure to hit the ground running.

They have to start the game well to create positive vibes and the Irish approach will be interesting as the better performances in France involved bright openings with the emphasis on going forward.

Away qualifiers such as this one can be synonymous with a cagey approach and digging in with a view to staying in the match. O'Neill's choice of personnel will be informative.

"I don't think it's possible to start to play for a draw," he said, "But I think in this competition every point is going to be valuable."

From a squad selection perspective, Ireland have a relatively small pool of players. But even with James McCarthy absent, the visiting boss does have midfield options.

The percentage call is that the match-fit Glenn Whelan will slot into the holding role which McCarthy filled for the second half of the Euros. If O'Neill opts to stick with Stephen Ward at left back, then he could retain Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick in midfield roles. James McClean, Shane Long and Daryl Murphy filled out the rest of his side in Lille and Lyon, but the return of Jon Walters means that the latter could miss out.

Read more: Upwardly mobile Hendrick ready for his moment to shine

McClean's participation may well revolve around whether O'Neill feels that a wide option is necessary; he could go with a narrow midfield diamond that brings Harry Arter, Stephen Quinn and Wes Hoolahan into the equation. Quinn was the go-to guy for the challenging away tests at the start of the last adventure.

Serbia's preference for a three-man defence and wing backs could well see McClean retained, though, as the triumvirate of Whelan, Brady and Hendrick might just give the visitors enough strength through the middle. Walters has shown an ability to shift to the right and get involved in the defensive effort.

Read more: Brady needs to find his best role to make next move

The identity of O'Neill's right back might guide his thinking. Séamus Coleman has travelled with the group but, true to form, the manager kept his cards close to his chest.

He did join in with the session at the home of Red Star Belgrade - which the natives still refer to as 'the Marakana' - along with John O'Shea.

O'Neill said that both players are "fine" but indicated he will wait to see how they react before reaching any conclusions.

That has delayed an announcement on the identity of his new long-term captain. He hinted that it was related to the outcome of training, and a Coleman coronation appears likely.

Cyrus Christie will deputise if the skipper-in-waiting misses out, but O'Neill feels that the Everton employee is "naturally fit" and dismissed concerns about his lack of a competitive club appearance this term by referencing pre-season run-outs including Wayne Rooney's testimonial.

When a Serb pointed out that Aleksandar Mitrovic had got the better of O'Shea in their last club engagement, O'Neill joked that he would leave the Waterford veteran out on that basis.

However, it's possible that the fiery Newcastle striker might end up facing his new clubmate Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh, as gambling on two injury doubts could be too much of a risk for O'Neill.

The general tone of his briefing is that Ireland have landed a group where everybody has a chance. He rattled off the names. "Serbia are rejuvenated," he said, "Wales have done brilliantly. Austria are a much better side than their Euros results suggest. Georgia are rejuvenated also, and Moldova no pushover. It's too early to call anything."

With three away games out of the first four, the focus is on the short term. Inevitably, his unsigned contract came up again after Roy Keane was quoted in the Sunday papers as saying that he had "an idea" about a reason for the unusual delay.

O'Neill batted that away, indicating that he would be remain committed to Ireland even if a Premier League operation came calling. "There's no real particular issue," he insisted, "It's just a matter of getting around to it."

He knows a sluggish opening would put Ireland in real bother by Christmas. With only one team going through automatically, it promises to be a scrap and the lowest-scoring second-placed side across all groups misses out on a play-off.

"There will be a lot of twists and turns," he asserted, "Our group could end up with the lowest number of points but if you end up on top, where you want to be, does that matter? But to speak about being top at this minute of the season would be ludicrous for me."

The actions will mean more than the words.

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