Monday 19 August 2019

Daniel McDonnell: Will O'Neill give 'Tbilisi Two' another opportunity?

Meyler's suspension and McCarthy's woe could mean Copenhagen reunion for Arter and Whelan

Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan look set to be reunited in the centre of midfield for Ireland’s first leg clash with Denmark. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan look set to be reunited in the centre of midfield for Ireland’s first leg clash with Denmark. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It was the nadir of Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign.

The September struggle in Georgia which left Martin O'Neill's side facing an uphill battle to make it to Russia, a task that stiffened when eventual group winners Serbia triumphed in Dublin three days later.

Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter were dropped for that game, a statement which offered a clear window into the manager's thinking on what went wrong.

Arter admitted afterwards that his own performance was below-par and he discussed his difficulties with O'Neill, conceding that he deserved to be dropped for the Aviva Stadium encounter. Whelan tends to keep his thoughts to himself, publicly at least.

A month later in Cardiff, with David Meyler bumped up the queue to the extent that he wore the captain's armband, Arter was given another chance and played his part in a famous win.

Whelan was ushered off the bench to help see it out, yet he was not reunited with Arter - he came in for the final 13 minutes when the Bournemouth player ran out of steam.

But with Meyler banned for Saturday's play-off first leg in Copenhagen, James McCarthy's comeback aborted and question marks over Jeff Hendrick - who would be operating further forward in an ideal world - then it's possible that the 'Tbilisi Two' will be reunited from the outset.

It is a bit of a dilemma for O'Neill who hailed Meyler's energy and ability to close players down.

With Georgia keeping the ball well, Whelan struggled to get close while Arter seemed unsure of what was being asked of him.


O'Neill did stress that it would be wrong to simply apportion responsibility for a tough day in the office to the central midfield duo.

"I could have left a few out of the side (for Serbia)," he said. "But I think Harry and Glenn accepted the fact we hadn't played well in the game.

"Does that mean because I leave those two out that they take the brunt of the criticism? No... the criticism comes to me at the end of the day as it does with managers. We've been fighting the whole way through, I just think we didn't do well in the game.

"Of course, you do need your midfield players driving. In fairness, as a midfield player myself, I have a lot of sympathy for midfield players - particularly if they are trying to close a player down and we are not closing down as a unit and when you look behind the gap is massive.

"Then the opposition players are coming off the back four and dealing with the ball and you think, 'Should I be back there?' I have empathy and sympathy."

This is a particularly important point in the context of Denmark's star man, Christian Eriksen, who has the ability to drop into that pocket and pose problems.

Ireland's effectiveness in shackling the Spurs star could well be the difference between winning and losing. Under O'Neill, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gareth Bale were successfully subdued in big matches, albeit while operating as strikers for their respective teams.

They did roam and that made the defensive midfielders particularly important but in the case of Eriksen, the threat could start from deeper.

At his squad announcement, O'Neill perhaps offered a small window into any game-plan by asserting that the priority has to be ensuring that Eriksen can only get on the ball some distance from goal.

That would suggest a high-tempo approach to closing down the 25-year-old will be necessary.

In Cardiff, Robbie Brady was positioned slightly ahead of Meyler and Arter with Hendrick on the right and James McClean on the left. The result was good, even if the midfield display was hardly vintage.

On the safe assumption that O'Neill would be loathe to throw Conor Hourihane or Eunan O'Kane in for the biggest games of their international careers, then the only alternative to the Arter and Whelan combination would be to drop Brady or Hendrick back to a deeper role - presuming the latter overcomes a glute problem.

That scenario would then leave room for the inclusion of Wes Hoolahan, Callum O'Dowda or Aiden McGeady, depending on how the manager shuffled the pack.

It would be a surprise considering the manager's priority is effectively to stay in the game and bring the tie back to an epic night in Dublin seven days from now.

In reality the question mark hangs over Whelan as Arter should be a certainty to start, much as he's endured a frustrating month at Bournemouth since the last international window.

He was recalled for the weekend win at Newcastle, but O'Neill noted a spell on the sidelines would be a shock to the system for the player considering he is used to being a main player for his employers - the Derryman extended that point to offering a take on why the 27-year-old has been a slow starter on Irish duty.

"I think Harry is finding his feet with us," he said.

"At Bournemouth, particularly in their promotion year and the first year in the Premier League, Harry was a dominant figure around the football club.

"That wasn't just on the field but around the club and Harry has still to feel that with us.

"He's a wee bit quiet here whereas he's more boisterous at Bournemouth. But he's definitely finding his way.

"I put him into a big match like that against Wales which might tell you something - I put him in a match of that standing when he hadn't played on the Friday night against Moldova.

"But that's fine. I think he was honest when he said he didn't play well against Georgia and he didn't deserve to play the next game and he was pretty honest with his assessment.

"Now he's had to cope with not playing for Bournemouth.

"All of these things are coming as a test for him and if he can come through it then he will be a better player."

O'Neill did respect the player's introspective look at his disappointing Georgian endeavours. He used it as an example of the maturity of his group.

But in identifying the contrast between the club sphere and the international arena, he highlighted the importance of getting things right in his own mind.

"This isn't a club where you're getting a second chance in seven days' time again,"O'Neill said. "We play twice in three days and it's down to those matches."

The 65-year-old must decide if he can give a proper second chance to the partnership that has laboured on the road before. It's a big call.

Irish Independent

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