Irish eyes looking beyond Mexico
Tonight’s MetLife Stadium friendly will only gain importance in hindsight
The fact that the game will be preceded by a fan festival entitled 'Fútbol Fiesta' offers an insight into the market that organisers expect to turn out for tonight's friendly showdown between Mexico and Ireland.
It will feature sponsored appearances from retired Mexican legends Jared Borgetti, Oswaldo Sanchez and the goalscoring goalie Jorge Campos. McAteer and Aldridge were not required.
The Mexicans, who play frequently in these parts, are clearly expected to be the crowd favourites at the MetLife Stadium.
O'Neill's Ireland have been here before. Three years have passed since their last visit to these parts, a two-game tour that started off with a low-key game with Costa Rica in Philadelphia and ended with a drubbing at the hands of a World Cup-bound Portugal in tonight's venue.
The length of the absence should ensure that the Irish community come out in numbers too.
But while Mexico already have most of their heavy hitters in camp ahead of a busy schedule culminating with the Confederations Cup, this Ireland squad is short on stars that would be troubled if they went for a stroll around Manhattan.
Management are quite literally viewing the game as a useful exercise to boost the fitness levels of players that will be needed against Austria on Sunday week. The chance to try out some fresher faces and experiment with different formations is a bonus.
Roy Keane said last week that dates with Mexico and Uruguay are about as tough as it gets when it comes to preparing for the World Cup clash with Austria. Their styles of play are unlikely to function as an effective trial run either.
The FAI have to pay the bills, however, and the Mexican and Uruguayan options ticked the box. And, of course, the most direct route to Russia is to make it there automatically; Ireland have their fate in their own hands after five matches. Fitness-wise, these matches are a means to an end.
Realistically, seven members of the 19-man party have a chance of starting against the Austrians; they are Darren Randolph, Richard Keogh, Shane Duffy, Cyrus Christie, James McClean, Wes Hoolahan, and Daryl Murphy. They will all benefit from match practice for varying reasons. And it will offer a better workout than running rings around Oman. Duffy has to show he's shaken off the foot problem that has sidelined him since March.
Christie will be Seamus Coleman's replacement and his last outing came in April. McClean is naturally fit, and made over 30 appearances for West Brom this term, yet the majority came from the bench.
O'Neill has indicated that Christie and McClean will operate as wing-backs in a 3-5-2 as the lack of a recognised left-back has complicated his preparations. He does have six centre-backs. "Believe it or not, there's centre-halves volunteering to go into left-back if we want to go to a [back] four. They just want to get on the field," says O'Neill with a grin.
"That's encouraging, but at this minute, James can play in that side and certainly Cyrus can play on that (right) side.
"Even if we had [a full squad], it's something that's worthwhile trying because if you do have to go and change systems during the course of the game, you don't want players thinking, 'Oh, you know, we did a little bit of 20 minutes of that in training for a couple of days, but we didn't really do this'.
"It would be nice to do this in the heat of the game. And at this minute, unless I go and change my mind or unless something happens to a couple of players, I will most likely go with that and see how it goes."
That formation presents decisions in the centre of the park. Take Wes Hoolahan out of the equation - he could function in a more advanced role in that system - the central midfielder contenders are the uncapped Alan Browne, a 2007 tour survivor Stephen Gleeson, Eunan O'Kane and Conor Hourihane. Between them, they have ten caps.
Hoolahan is unlikely to be given the full 90 so O'Neill may have to alter his shape at some point to accommodate Daryl Horgan or Callum O'Dowda if the wingers are to get on the park. Up front, there are just two strikers present, David McGoldrick and Daryl Murphy, so the former Ipswich team-mates should be reunited. O'Neill has always rated McGoldrick and thinks that he's most effective when he stays up front.
"Of course I'm well aware of their relationship. There's a good chance those two will be on the field and probably at the same time too," he said. "You wouldn't have seen it but McGoldrick has done well in training.
"I think David naturally drops back sometimes to the consternation of Mick (McCarthy) at Ipswich. I think he'd rather him a wee bit further towards goal. Injuries have really curtailed his last couple of years but I think he's got over them now hopefully and we might see the best of him."
With Shane Long unavailable, he could be an outside contender for a cameo appearance against the Austrians. Other members of the party are playing the longer game. Shane Duffy's first cap came against Costa Rica three years ago and he disappeared into the background in the aftermath.
In hindsight, these outings gain context. Ireland's last meeting with Mexico was 17 years ago and it featured a first international goal for a youngster named Richard Dunne. McClean, who will captain the side tonight, spoke earlier this week about his pride in breaking his Irish duck in the aforementioned Portuguese thrashing.
Years from now, they will not recall those American dates as meaningless. The profile of the squad that O'Neill has brought means that the game will matter to those selected, even though management's sleep patterns will be unaffected by the consequences.
The majority of the Irish public will be asleep by the time it kicks off and it's entirely likely they will wake to news of a defeat - although the caveat here is Mexico did lose to a makeshift Croatian outfit last weekend. Whatever happens, O'Neill will be looking beyond the scoreboard in his search for short-term significance.
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