Monday 20 November 2017

Ireland mission complicated by play-off doubts

Two wins this week will not guarantee Martin O'Neill's charges the chance to battle it out for World Cup spot - favours are required from other groups

Jeff Hendrick celebrates scoring the winning goal for Burnley against Everton yesterday with his Ireland team-mate Stephen Ward. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Jeff Hendrick celebrates scoring the winning goal for Burnley against Everton yesterday with his Ireland team-mate Stephen Ward. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The Ireland squad gather in Dublin today with the intention of setting up a manic Monday in Cardiff seven days from now.

They need a couple of favours to make that possible, beyond the obvious need to take full points from Moldova's visit to the Aviva Stadium on Friday.

Unfortunately, the fact that one second-placed side misses out on a play-off has become extremely relevant for Ireland after a win-less 2017.

The simple consequence of that is that O'Neill's men could be eliminated even if they succeed in delivering the perfect finish by beating Moldova and then stunning Wales on their own patch.

That's all Ireland can control and it's a banker that the message from the camp throughout the week will be just that. There's little else they can say about complicated permutations.

But the reality is that the setting up of a winner-takes-all encounter is dependent on the outcome of matches taking place next Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, which makes for a confusing build-up.

The bizarre scenario means that Kevin De Bruyne's last-minute injury in Manchester City's win at Chelsea on Saturday might actually be deemed relevant.

If the already-qualified Belgium stop hosts Bosnia from winning their penultimate qualifier next Saturday and Greece drop points to neighbours Cyprus on the same evening, then a six-point finish for Ireland would definitely be enough to avoid a cruel fate.

With nine qualifying groups and eight places in the play-offs, FIFA rules eliminate the runner-up with the lowest points total. The caveat is that results against each group's worst side are discounted. This is to avoid a scenario where a team makes it on goal difference because they were lucky enough to draw a whipping boy like Gibraltar in their section.

Therefore, a 100pc finish for Ireland would put them on 19 points. Take away six from basement-bound Moldova and the second place figure is 13. Bosnia and Greece's Group H offers hope. They will not be able to get more than 12 points if they slip up next Saturday. Cyprus have to deliver an upset; Belgium need to keep the foot on the pedal even though they've already qualified.

If that fails, the other group of realistic interest is Group F which has been dominated by England. What Ireland need there is Gareth Southgate's men to defeat Slovenia on Thursday. At the same time, the key match is in Glasgow where a home success for Scotland against Slovakia is essential.

The hope would be that Scotland follow that up by failing to win in Slovenia on the Sunday. Again, that would mean the runner-up in that group cannot get any more than 12 points.

Confused?

This is a messy business and getting bogged down in it is actually an act of extreme optimism given how Ireland performed in September - although question marks over Gareth Bale's wellbeing could influence the mood.

Yet the myriad ifs and buts are a reminder of how Ireland have succeeded in making things far too complicated for themselves. O'Neill says he would taken this position at the start of the group, but nobody would have accepted it after the win in Austria last November.

Ireland are not quite in control of their destiny and the various scenarios elsewhere are the subplot to the week because it would be folly to pretend otherwise.

A win over Moldova should be manageable although suspensions for Robbie Brady and James McClean have weakened the hand.

Harry Arter is a doubt in midfield after missing Bournemouth's draw with Leicester, although Eddie Howe expects him to travel. And this double-header has come too soon for James McCarthy.

Jeff Hendrick will travel in good spirits after scoring Burnley's winner at Everton yesterday but Saturday's Championship action was the stage for his likely partners. David Meyler has emerged as an alternative to Glenn Whelan in a role in front of the back four. There might even be room for both of them. Meyler scored from the spot and was busy in Hull's demolition of Birmingham.

If Ireland are to dominate the ball against Moldova, then Wes Hoolahan will surely have to feature considering he was prominent in the away game in Chisinau. O'Neill may not want to deploy the 35-year-old twice in the space of three days and a start for Hoolahan in Dublin could be a sign that he will make way for Brady or McClean for the Wales leg of this gathering.

Aiden McGeady is the other experienced creative option and he enjoyed a lively weekend by scoring the equaliser for Sunderland at Preston where he was loved as a loanee last term.

That romance has broken down with McGeady responding to jeers by doing an Emmanuel Adebayor and sprinting to the other end of the pitch to greet the opposition hardcore after his strike. It made sense for McGeady to follow Simon Grayson to Sunderland, especially as Preston were never going to be able to afford a permanent move, but those details rarely count for much.

As it happens, a fired-up and angry version of the Glaswegian can be an asset if he's on song. He can frustrate but he was missed when Serbia were down to ten and Ireland were bereft of guile with Hoolahan already replaced.

A long-term injury for Jon Walters and fresh problem for David McGoldrick means the striking responsibility will fall to Shane Long and Daryl Murphy and the intrigue in Abbotstown today will surround whether Sean Maguire, Scott Hogan or Aiden O'Brien have actually make the final cut. If Ireland can get into a strong position, then a Moldovan cameo for a newcomer could be productive on a number of counts.

The bottom line is that Ireland need to generate some momentum going to Wales so it's conceivable that the banned Brady and McClean will be the only first-choice players to sit things out on Friday.

Predicting O'Neill selections can be difficult. But the great unknown this week goes beyond what can Ireland do to help themselves. If there's such a thing as the luck of the Irish, it's needed now.

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