Monday 19 November 2018

Daniel McDonnell: There will be no excuse if understrength Wales are not put under pressure by O'Neill's troops

 

Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill in Cardiff last month
Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill in Cardiff last month
Shadow boxing: Martin O’Neill looks on in Abbotstown yesterday ahead of tonight’s clash with Wales. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

If not now, then when?

That is the question that hangs in the air ahead of Ireland's meeting with a weakened Wales in the Aviva Stadium this evening.

Ryan Giggs's side have landed into Dublin without star men Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey and teenage playmaker Ethan Ampadu, three key components of last month's one-sided showdown in Cardiff.

Martin O'Neill will point to the absence of several of his guaranteed starters as a reason to avoid labouring on the impact of Welsh withdrawals.

However, he did acknowledge on several occasions yesterday that the performance needs to step up a notch from Saturday's dour draw with a diminished Denmark.

O'Neill pressed all the right buttons in terms of describing how his side should play, admitting that his defence sat too deep and that posed problems further up the park.

Matt Doherty warms up for action. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Matt Doherty warms up for action. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

At the same time, he stressed that it's hard to complain if a high-quality opponent string passes together and naturally push green shirts on the defensive.

"We are playing at home and need to get on the front foot as quickly as possible and try and dictate the game," said O'Neill. "Sometimes it's easier said than done. It doesn't work out like that. Sometimes exceptionally talented players in the opposition can force you back."

Wales still have good players. Joe Allen is a skilful operator in the engine room and David Brooks is a rising star.

Presence

Richard Keogh prepares to answer questions in a press conference. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Richard Keogh prepares to answer questions in a press conference. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

But there comes a point where Ireland need to make their presence felt at home rather than ceding the initiative to an opponent who really shouldn't be intimidating them to that degree.

Supporters are growing fatigued and apathy is more dangerous than anger as it can set in for the longer term.

Nobody is claiming that O'Neill is working with an elite group of internationals.

He was asked if another manager could do better and embarked on an answer that praised the heart and desire of his group - attributes which have never been questioned, although the lifeless display in Cardiff was troubling.

James McClean has plenty to smile about at training. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
James McClean has plenty to smile about at training. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

But tonight Ireland will entertain a youthful enough Welsh team who operate at similar levels in that their squad is a mishmash of Premier League and Championship performers.

Their boss is a rookie too. It's a gilt-edged opportunity for O'Neill's charges to salvage their autumn.

Time tends to freeze results and erase the details. The draw with Denmark was hard to watch, but the importance from Ireland's perspective was that it delivered a confidence-boosting clean sheet following two heavy beatings.

However, the game itself was so unremarkable that the credit in the bank will be minimal if tonight goes wrong.

On the flip side of that, an Irish success would make this an October where four points from a possible six were secured.

The team said all the diplomatic things in the aftermath of Saturday about the importance of a solid showing and how it was a step in the right direction.

Proof of that will be required against this yellow-pack version of the Welsh side that ran rings around them last month.

O'Neill will have to make one change with Callum O'Dowda out of the equation. As ever, he was coy on personnel matters and floated the possibility that Ireland might revert to a back four.

It would be slightly out of character for the 66-year-old to reshape his defence during a double-header if things have gone quite well first time around.

Richard Keogh, Shane Duffy and Kevin Long will expect to play again, with Keogh brought along to the pre-match press conference. Abandoning the experiment after one competitive match would be a slight head-scratcher.

The midfield area wasn't properly tested by the Danes. Harry Arter is not a reliable shield, and O'Neill positioned O'Dowda and Cyrus Christie on either side with Jeff Hendrick pressed forward playing off Shane Long.

When O'Dowda was withdrawn at the break, James McClean dropped inside from wing-back.

60ireland3.jpg
James McClean has plenty to smile about at training. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ultimately, the strategy was about battery power in the middle rather than invention. Wales have the nous to exploit that.

The manager disputed a question which posited the theory that a number of players were effectively square pegs in round holes on Saturday. He asked for examples beyond Christie, and McClean was mentioned.

"I don't agree with that," he said. "James McClean has played left wing-back for country and club. The only player we had playing in a position where he doesn't normally play is Cyrus Christie, and he was man of the match."

That opinion is subjective, of course, and it will be interesting to see if he persists with it. A reference to the big pitch and the need for athleticism means Christie is certain to start; it's conceivable he could revert to wing-back ahead of Doherty with a more conventional midfielder brought into the centre.

The simple tweak would be Jeff Hendrick moving into O'Dowda's berth - although he would be more comfortable on the right side - with the in-form Callum Robinson coming in as support for Shane Long provided the lone striker gets the all clear after incurring some bumps and bruises.

"What I thought on Callum Robinson was that he gave us extra energy, he gave us some impetus," said O'Neill, with reference to the Preston player's cameo.

He does have other forward players in reserve and indicated that Aston Villa's Scott Hogan would be ahead of Robinson's Preston pal Sean Maguire in terms of match sharpness.

"Sean is a natural talent and hopefully he's got a proper career ahead of him at club and international level, but he's only played 15 minutes," said O'Neill. "Hogan has not been picked by Aston Villa but he has been training for the past month."

The Irish manager has started to speak about the campaign proper in March, yet dismissed the idea that he is now drawing a line through what can be achieved from the UEFA Nations League.

In reality, Ireland will be long odds on to finish bottom of the group and drop to third-seed status for the regular qualifying draw if they fail to take full points this evening.

That's a clear incentive here, especially as Ireland's seeding is often raised in the context of expectations.

If the chance to control that status is limply passed up, there will be no excuse.

Irish Independent

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