Monday 20 November 2017

Georgia v Ireland: The Wes Hoolahan question, wary O'Neill, forest fires and basketball fever

Jonathan Hayes, left, Robbie Brady, centre, and Wes Hoolahan of Republic of Ireland in Georgia
Jonathan Hayes, left, Robbie Brady, centre, and Wes Hoolahan of Republic of Ireland in Georgia
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The frustration of being patronised is a familiar feeling for Irish teams. Opposition coach bingo is an easy game to crack. The Irish are strong, they have spirit, they are physical and good in the air, and they fight until the end. But they're not exactly technically gifted.

Georgian manager Vladimir Weiss ticked all of those boxes ahead of tonight's Group D encounter at the Boris Paichadze Arena. He said he was speaking from experience having battled with sides managed by Steve Staunton and Giovanni Trapattoni in his former job as manager of his native Slovakia.

But this Georgian group know the pain of a consoling pat on the head too. Throughout this week, Martin O'Neill, Roy Keane and the rest of the Irish camp have showered praise on tonight's hosts. Ireland stole three points from the Dublin meeting last October and the visiting contingent have also ran through other matches where Georgia deserved more.

After several questions along these lines in his press conference, Weiss gave an exasperated smile.

"Everyone says this," he said. "You play well, you have potential, you have a good team. Yes, but we need a result. You play for the results."

And that's the bottom line for Georgia heading into this game.

In the past, Georgian sides have developed a reputation for throwing in the towel as another campaign peters towards disappointment. They pressed reset on the manager front to try and get a response and it occasionally worked, as Scotland found to their cost here two years ago.

But they have stuck with Weiss throughout this campaign - although this may well be a one-term gig for him - and remain a dangerous opponent as they go in search of the win that might salvage some pride. They have problems, however, with several key figures absent from their squad for tonight.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

"We nearly had our strongest side in Dublin and if we could have managed to assemble that team for every game, then maybe our results would have been a lot better," sighed Weiss. "That's the way things go in football. Injuries, suspensions..."

Locals still anticipate a crowd in the region of 30,000 descending on the stadium, even though their preparation has been dominated by other news. Georgia's basketball team shocked Lithuania earlier this week to bring some good vibes to the headlines - raging forest fires have shaped the news agenda. Helicopters were spraying water on the hills above Tbilisi yesterday to cope with a new wave.

The Irish party are immersed in their own world in what could be the defining week of this qualification campaign. Six points from their next two games would start to make the dream of a Russian summer look very likely.

Having toiled here three years ago, management and players are on message about how they can look no further than a Georgian group that must be wondering why Ireland have a 100pc record against their nation.

"We are in a very good position," said James McClean, who was sent out to accompany O'Neill for his press duties. "But it would be very foolish to look beyond this game. We need to be at it."

O'Neill, who has sometimes had to worry about what the Derry man might say in front of a microphone, listened approvingly.

"I don't just feel it's a tricky tie," said the manager. "I feel it's a genuinely difficult game. It's my job to look at previous matches. They played exceptionally well against us in the first half in Dublin, they followed that up in their draw against Wales and they scored first against Serbia and if they'd got a second I'm fairly sure they would have gone on to win the game."

That is the warning. The flip side of that is that Ireland have performed strongly in the second half of games across the group, and the obvious route to success here is to frustrate a side that clearly has a soft centre when it comes to delivering results.

Ireland will be combative, as ever, but O'Neill feels that maintaining possession will help to combat the influence of the warm conditions. Chasing the game would not be a smart play.

That leads to obvious questions about the personnel. Ireland are better in that department when Wes Hoolahan is on the pitch, yet it's difficult to confidently predict that he will figure.

Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter should start the game and Robbie Brady is an option to support them in a more advanced berth.

Another alternative is Aiden McGeady, the hero here three years ago with his injury-time trickery arguably providing the finest moment of his Irish career. O'Neill did speak at length about the new Sunderland recruit in his pre-match musings.

The Glaswegian's partner gave birth to a baby earlier in the week and O'Neill feels the winger is in a good place at the moment. That said, it's also worth noting that he only spoke about McGeady because he was asked about him and there's absolutely no guarantee that he will start regardless of his excellent course and distance form.

O'Neill can spring a wildcard and a contender here, even though it wouldn't be that much of a surprise, such as Daryl Murphy.

A year ago, he bagged a vital goal off the bench against Serbia. With concerns about Shane Long's match sharpness, and the need to hold the ball up well, then the Nottingham Forest player is an option.

"You are hoping that Shane Long, who hasn't had much playing time but is still very important for us, will be thinking, 'I haven't played but I feel fresh' and he should do," said O'Neill. "You work one against the other.

You would want players to have played a number of competitive games beforehand, a full 90 minutes (Long has a total of 50 minutes from three sub outings), but it's not always going to be the case."

With concerns over Jon Walters, who has made an extremely quick recovery from his ankle problem, then there might be a gamble involved in kicking off with two attacking players that might be short of peak condition.

Walters can function on the right of a hybrid five-man midfield, but has said he is more comfortable through the centre these days.

O'Neill will keep his players guessing until kick-off approaches. But there will be no excuses if they're not prepared for what's coming.

Irish Independent

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