Dream Team of O'Neill and Keane going nowhere
Martin O'Neill appears to be planning to stay at the helm regardless of what unfolds in Cardiff
The managers of Wales and the Republic of Ireland will have taken more than a passing glance at Real Madrid's home clash with Espanyol in the Bernabeu last night. Gareth Bale is the difference between Wales or Ireland challenging the FIFA mathematicians and taking one of their eight play-off places.
His form is irrelevant really. Chris Coleman and Martin O'Neill just need to know if Bale is fit. If Wales' greatest ever player plays against Ireland next Monday, as long as the ball and Bale are on the pitch, he can win this final World Cup group game in a moment of breathtaking brilliance.
No one can prepare for that but prepare they must and it was a busy day for O'Neill and his staff yesterday. The manager, Roy Keane, Steve Walford, Steve Guppy, Seamus McDonagh and others were watching games and Irishmen at Preston, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa and Bournemouth.
These are always a tense couple of days for international managers but the quandary for O'Neill is that he went into this final pre-qualifying week weekend desperate for the majority of his squad to get game time. But he knows he cannot afford any more injuries or withdrawals, particularly among his regulars. Fingers will be crossed as the Ireland squad starts to gather in Dublin that key players come through games at Arsenal, Everton and Newcastle today and can join up unscathed with the rest of the squad.
Wales coach Coleman will have the same anxieties until all of his players are checked into the team hotel this evening but is less concerned about all of his squad being in action. Seventeen-year-old Ben Woodburn made his debut for Wales last month and reignited their World Cup campaign with the winner against Austria. He has yet to play for Liverpool this season.
There have been few additions to the Ireland squad O'Neill took to France last summer and little sign of reinforcements who will turn them into serious Euro 2020 qualifying contenders.
That is the hand dealt to O'Neill and there is sympathy within the FAI over the limitations of the squad. The 32 players he named on Tuesday are all he has available and the panel has already been reduced by Kevin Doyle's sudden retirement and James McCarthy's sensible decision to stay at Everton. The Ireland manager will trim it further today, hoping he will make the decisions, not the medics.
O'Neill and Keane are planning to remain as the Republic of Ireland's management team and the unlikely duo, who signed a deal last year to keep them in charge to the end of this World Cup campaign, have had tentative talks with the FAI over their future and a possible contract extension to the end of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
The attitude on both sides is relaxed, as it was in the run-up to last summer's European Championship finals when it took months to finalise and sign the new deal. O'Neill, in particular, is keen to get this week out of the way before either side commits.
The FAI believe the pair are still the best option to take the team forward, even if the road to Russia ends in Cardiff in eight days. Sources maintain that O'Neill and Keane are the "ticket to success".
The team's relative success in France last summer and a promising start to the current campaign have persuaded most in the FAI to continue with O'Neill and Keane at the helm, although there are naturally concerns about the financial implications of failing to qualify for another World Cup.
Ireland have not reached the finals since 2002, when Mick McCarthy was in charge, and it's thought failure now could cost the Association around €11m in prize money and additional benefits and earnings. They would also miss out on significant sponsorship deals and campaigns for the summer which could have an impact on financing future football development programmes across the country.
Ireland made an excellent start to these qualifiers, winning 10 points in the first four games, including a draw in Serbia and a memorable win over Austria, who had started the group as the top seeds.
Since then, they have managed just three points from four games and with 13 points after eight games, Ireland are five behind Serbia and a point behind Wales, who reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016. Under FIFA's complicated qualification system, one of the nine European runners-up will miss out, and that could come from Ireland's group.
When he left the Aviva last month after Serbia's demoralising victory, O'Neill was eager to appear optimistic about Ireland's qualification chances, insisting they will win the final two games. He will carry that jauntiness throughout the week.
His team must beat Moldova at home on Friday night and then win in the Welsh capital to secure the runners-up place in Group D. Serbia are expected to win their remaining matches to win the group and secure the automatic qualifying place.
O'Neill knows he will face questions about his future, and after his tetchy TV interview in Tbilisi a month ago, his demeanour across the two games will be scrutinised by factions in the FAI who might now prefer a new voice in charge of the senior team.
Although in a minority, that dissenting group could grow if Ireland fail in Cardiff, and there are those who could remind chief executive John Delaney of Sam Allardyce's availability. Any potential vacancy could be too early for Mick McCarthy or Chris Hughton. Keane remains the obvious choice but loaded with potential antagonism.
At present, former Celtic boss O'Neill, who appointed ex-Ireland and Manchester United captain Keane as his assistant when he took over four years ago, has no intention of walking out on the job if Ireland fail to reach the qualifying play-offs.
Sunday Indo Sport