Sunday 25 March 2018

Martin O'Neill reveals his plan to deal with Gareth Bale in World Cup crunch

Gareth Bale and (inset) Martin O'Neill
Gareth Bale and (inset) Martin O'Neill
O’Neill believes Ireland’s group is wide open. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

John Fallon

For a manager of an age now eligible to claim a free bus pass, Martin O'Neill still knows the modern-day footballer well enough not to dish out homework, but he does expect his Irish players to have swotted up on Gareth Bale.

World-class stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Alaba and Toni Kroos have flourished in Lansdowne Road to the detriment of Ireland's qualification hopes in recent years, and Ireland's hopes of ending their 16-year World Cup finals drought could well come down to how they handle Bale.

The first test comes on Friday, and O'Neill will look to equip his players with the tools to disarm the Welsh talisman.

Instead of embracing the modern method of downloading clips to a centralised online database for players to access and study in advance, the Ireland manager has left it to them to assemble their own insights on how the dangerman operates. The squad will have five days together to formulate their tactics but O'Neill doesn't believe it should be a spoon-feeding exercise.

"If I'm a defender, I'd want to know who I'm playing against each week," opined the Derry man, who recently turned 65.

"I'd want to know as much as possible about my opponent and shouldn't always be relying on somebody handing me something like a DVD. I think you should go out of your way to do it.

"Gareth Bale is a world-class player and will cause you problems. For instance, at the minute for Real Madrid he's playing wide on the right-hand side and picking the ball up from there.

"If I was marking him, I would have a little look to see what direction Bale turns. He's got really good pace, has turned a couple of players in La Liga there recently where you thought it was impossible to get out of. But, in three strides, he's gotten away from them."

Whether it is Seamus Coleman or Stephen Ward, both model professionals, who find themselves retreating against a marauding Bale approaching head-on, then O'Neill wants the full-backs as much as possible attuned to his likely next move.

"Those players who might be in close proximity to Bale or up against him should look at things, because he's a handful, a top-quality, world-class player," said the manager. "But there are things you can do to try to read what he might be doing.

"I remember Pat Rice, my Northern Ireland team-mate who played for Arsenal. As a full-back, long before there were DVDs, he had a little book of players, including any winger who gave him a real hard time. He was ready for them in the next match because he could read what they were going to do."

Those Irish players fretting at the thought of being tasked with single-handedly shackling the Madrid maestro need not worry, as the manager is eager to share the workload. Neither will the team "obsess" about quieting Bale.

"If you're asking will we end up man-marking Bale, well I think great players can escape that," O'Neill said. "You end up becoming totally obsessed with somebody. But if he's picking it up and becoming really dangerous, then I think our players in that area should try to react to it.

"Sometimes players like to pull it down on their chest, so we'll give him less room to that do and it will negate some of his decent work. You can have all these great plans but brilliant players can extricate themselves from these situations."

Besides, Wales have enough quality elsewhere for the game-plan not to be centred on neutralising Bale. Victory isn't essential for the visitors, yet approaching the midway point of the campaign, it would close the gap and lift their morale ahead of a run-in culminating with Ireland visiting Cardiff in October.

"Wales have a number of other quality players in their side like Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen and it's not that long ago they reached the semi-finals at the Euros," O'Neill said. "I actually voted Chris Coleman in my top three coaches of the year in Europe behind Claudio Ranieri and Fernando Santos, as well as Bale for my player of the year.

"Chris is not going to tell me how Wales will play and I don't know if they're going to come and start with all-out attack.

"I still think the group is wide open. This game has taken on an enormous importance because we'll be then halfway through the qualifiers.

"For us, we've got to approach the game in the right manner. We're at home and we've got to try and win it. I wouldn't know how to play for a point but if we're hanging on with three minutes to go, would I take it? Depending on the circumstances, yes.

"We've lost a bit of momentum now because it was so long ago since November when we beat Austria.

"Still, I think the players genuinely enjoy coming into the squad. I have to make sure they try and have the same sort of week they normally have at club level, even if that will be difficult.

"Motivation this week is very important, as will be trying to get the work in on the set-pieces. These are still prominent in this game. We've had Champions League matches decided on set-pieces at the end of it all and it might come down to something like that, a lapse of concentration in a game."

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