From Gareth Bale to Roy Keane: Why Republic of Ireland vs Wales is the biggest game in Europe this weekend
Roy Keane is usually an engaging speaker for how he so brutally cuts through any hype but, on this occasion, it felt like he was willingly building it up. The Irish assistant manager was also evidently trying to fire his players up, ahead of their World Cup qualifier in Dublin against Wales.
“If anyone thinks our mindset is for a draw, then you’re sadly mistaken,” Keane proclaimed. “We’re here to win.”
And, if Ireland do win, it could have huge consequences for their group - far more than any other European fixture would this weekend. That is what genuinely makes it the most enticing fixture in Europe over the next week, and why Keane’s sense of readiness is so fitting.
For most of the last few decades, and especially the last few years, of course, it would have been little more than an affair of local interest. How could it not when, up until last year, they had only qualified for six tournaments between them? That has changed, since Wales so fully charged Euro 2016 as a competition to reach the semi-finals. It would not be an exaggeration to say they are one of the most exciting teams in Europe right now, especially when a compact defence is so capable of unleashing a properly world-class star like Gareth Bale to wreak havoc.
Or, at least they had been the most exciting. You would not quite say there is a hangover since France but they haven’t been playing to anything like the same level, or with the same electricity. Chris Coleman’s side have only won one of their four games so far, drawing three, and conceding some very sloppy goals. They were also very lucky to get away with a point against Georgia at home, leaving them four points behind Ireland, who somewhat surprisingly sit on top of the group after a brilliant victory away against Austria.
And these are the stakes of this stand-out match at Lansdowne Road’s Aviva Stadium. If Ireland win, they will be seven points ahead - but at the halfway point of the group, with just five games left. It would effectively put the Welsh out, especially when they would also need Serbia and Austria to drop points. There is no other game in Europe with that kind of significance, and where one of the recent top-performing teams - with one of the world’s top-performing players - are in such danger. The World Cup could very well be denied Bale, and that could be decided on Friday. This is the match to watch.
The other side of it, is that Ireland have become one of the toughest and finely-tuned teams in Europe, claiming some "big scalps" - a phrase used by Chris Coleman on the eve of the match about his own side - in Germany, Italy and Austria away. That follows on from another trend from Irish football history, and something that Keane has previously played a part in. They have a habit of denying tournament revelations in the very next campaign. They really know how to bring sides back down to earth.
The Irish have done it to 1986 semi-finalists Belgium in reaching Euro 88, Euro 92 winners Denmark in making USA 94, France 98 semi-finalists Croatia in beating them to the play-offs for Euro 2000, and then Euro 2000 semi-finalists the Netherlands in making the 2002 World Cup.
There is a history to draw on here, to stifle any Welsh hysteria about how well they did in France. Lansdowne Road also has an atmosphere from such games to draw on there. It will crackle.
The big problem for Ireland, however, is that they may not have the players to stifle Wales. Martin O’Neill and Keane are facing something of a personnel crisis, with their own Euro 2016 star Robbie Brady suspended, and primary creative talent Wes Hoolahan one of many injured players including Harry Arter, Daryl Murphy and main centre-half pairing from Vienna, Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy.
O’Neill is going to have to improvise, and that could provide just enough disruption to a previously tight and functioning side to defeat them.
There’s also the fact that, for the first time since Wales beat Belgium 3-1 in the Euro 2016 quarter-final - in what was undoubtedly the biggest win of their own history - Coleman has a full squad to pick from. Added to the amplified stakes, it could well be one of those occasions where a side with the recent pedigree of Wales raise themselves.
He also, most importantly, has a fully fit Bale to pick. That can’t be overstated because, if a player like that performs as he can in a game like this, when there are stakes like this, he will simply overwhelm everyone else. And he's performed in far bigger. It's difficult not to think he himself will be fully charged.
It's also difficult to think that John Giles' comments on the eve of the game will help his country. The Irish legend wrote that Bale isn’t great yet, and Ramsey thinks he’s great but isn’t. It will help surely game in terms of fire.
“I must be a hell of a manager,” Coleman responded, when the words were put to him.
This derby is set to be a hell of a game. And worth the hype.
Independent News Service