Friday 23 February 2018

Glass half-empty or half-full? Ireland in control of destiny but there’s two sides to the story of this campaign

Martin O’Neill has plenty to exercise his mind as he plots the next part of Ireland’s World Cup
qualifying campaign. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill has plenty to exercise his mind as he plots the next part of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

David Borbalan was the villain of the piece last Sunday, a Spanish referee who has plenty of experience with angry managers.

He was the man in charge when then Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho infamously poked the late Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova in the eye.

Martin O'Neill felt he was the victim at the Aviva. But, as he has said himself, in the weeks to come it's only the result that will linger in the memory.

There are, however, two ways of looking at the position Ireland find themselves in at this stage of the race. They're in a great position, but could it be better? And do their performances inspire confidence that they can finish off the job?


Style Is Too Predictable

It is true that some of the most iconic through-balls in Irish football history could have come down with snow on them.

In the O'Neill era, we have the memory of Darren Randolph's exocet releasing Shane Long to down Germany and now the Robbie Brady 747 that teed up Jon Walters for his equaliser to halt Austria's gallop.

Yet we can also draw upon the memory of games such as the Bosnia play-off and that night in Lille, where Ireland merged the direct route with decent passages of football. RTE2 ran a vox pop on Sunday night which indicated that the punters had not been hoodwinked by the late rally.

Ireland cannot afford to keep starting games that poorly.

"You don't want to be trailing in matches here and fighting for your lives to get something out of it," said O'Neill. "We have to address that."

Unfortunately, after two-and-a-half weeks geared towards one fixture, Ireland were incapable of doing so. Sooner or later, it will be properly punished. A succession of slow starts asks questions about preparations.

Two points from six

When the draw was made, the Irish management spoke about the importance of making the most of their home fixtures. After last November's success in Vienna, the run-in looked extremely promising, with four of the last six fixtures in Dublin.

A total of two points from the visits of Wales and Austria is underwhelming in that context, even though it has essentially maintained Ireland's position in the group. O'Neill considers the Wales outcome to be acceptable in the circumstances.

"We were fairly depleted so I was happy to get something out of it on that particular day," he said.

Reading between the lines, Austria was a chance missed. And what was so disappointing is that Ireland's absence of assurance allowed a fragile opponent to gain confidence.

O'Neill likes to leave it late to name his team and we therefore know that he doesn't necessarily work on a particular shape with his chosen XI in the run-up to a game. It does keep his players guessing.

The choice of personnel sent out a message, however, with one defensively minded midfielder too many in the centre of the park. Jeff Hendrick is not suited to the playmaking role and that helped to give the away side the initiative.

Wins over Germany and Bosnia at the end of the Euros race had suspended doubts about this side's effectiveness at home, but the last two games, combined with a turgid affair against Georgia, raise those concerns once more.

Time is against key men

Ireland finished the game strongly, and they relied on experienced figures to really dig them out of a hole.

Look at the age profile of the attackers that were on the pitch in the closing minutes: Wes Hoolahan is 35, Daryl Murphy is 34 and Jon Walters is 33. Aiden McGeady is 31. At 28, James McClean is still in the younger group.

O'Neill's selection of Shane Duffy and Kevin Long suggests that he is trying to freshen up his defence and find a long-term partnership.

Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick were kept on the pitch, but they have failed to really build on the Euros and drive this team through the next campaign. The old-timers were still required to drag Ireland out of a hole.


This team finds always finds a way

Martin O'Neill has now managed Ireland in 22 competitive matches. He is undefeated at home, with the reverses coming away to Scotland and then the Euros losses to Belgium and France. Luck can only bring you so far, so there's more to it than that.

The amount of late goals that have been scored, particularly at the Aviva, is a testament to the workrate and the desire of the group.

"We lack a few things, as you well know, but heart is not one of them," said O'Neill.

His record on making changes and substitutions in the final quarter of a game is also good, even if it raises questions about the original selections that prompt a reshuffle.

In every single game in this campaign bar Wales, Ireland have nabbed a second-half goal to improve their points haul. All successful sides have the ability to do that.

We have been here before

Frustration was the prevailing mood in the Irish dressing room on Sunday, according to the manager. Two years ago disappointment also lingered into the summer after a 1-1 draw with Scotland that came about in different circumstances. On that occasion, Ireland started well and then lost their way. Their qualification campaign was one blow away from disaster.

If the emotions are similar, Ireland are in a better position this time around. The disappointment is cushioned by a four-point gap back to Wales and Austria, who really have reasons to be worried.

As the previous point alludes to, this group tend to improve when the heat is on.

"We're in a dogfight and maybe that's no bad thing," said their manager. "I think it's there for us.

"We've four games left and we have to get points on the board. We think we can do it."

There is nothing to be afraid of

Ireland got lucky with this qualification draw. Serbia have been talked up, but they did not impress at home against a depleted Wales side who left with regrets that they didn't take away the three points.

Their goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic and their poor defending of set-pieces remain an issue.

If Ireland can go to Tbilisi on September 2 and win, and Serbia make use of home advantage against Moldova, then the Dublin encounter three days later will effectively be a shoot-out for top spot with two games to go.

Stojkovic is suspended for Moldova and it will be interesting to find out if he is recalled; he did not enjoy it when Ireland bombarded his goal in the dying stages in Belgrade.

Wales and Austria also meet on September 2 in a match that would rule a losing side out of the equation. They both need a 100pc record from their final four games to reach 20 points.

Two wins and two draws can take Ireland there and that should guarantee a play-off at the very least, although the caveat here is that the second-placed side with lowest points across the nine groups misses out completely.

Ireland know how difficult it can be in Georgia and the heroics of Seamus Coleman saved them in the aforementioned Dublin struggle. The Georgians are an erratic bunch, though, and went on to earn a famous point against Wales before taking just two from six against Moldova.

They were two down in Chisinau before coming back to get a point on Sunday. Yes, they are worthy of respect - as Scotland found out - but three points from a possible 18 is telling. Put it this way: Georgia (A), Serbia (H), Moldova (H), Wales (A). That's not an unattractive run of fixtures for a side in control of its own destiny.

Win the first three and they've one foot on the plane. That's the most straightforward permutation.

Irish Independent

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