Moldovan football is in the doldrums but Ireland still must show more cohesion in attack
As Ireland take to the bumpy Zimbru Stadium pitch tonight, the players are likely to notice an odd flatness to the occasion. That is because the ultras of the Zimbru Chisinau side who play there, as well as hardcore supporters of other Moldovan clubs, are boycotting the national team's games. They believe ticket prices are far too high, while the relationship with the Moldovan Football Federation president Pavel Cebanu has plummeted.
Cebanu said at the start of the year that the team should at least challenge for World Cup qualification, but that is a target that seems detached from the reality of results, and only emphasises the poor value the supporters think they are getting. Moldova finished bottom of a Euro 2016 qualification group that included Liechtenstein, and the Zimbru Stadium even hosted a 1-0 loss to the principality. That - as well as a friendly 0-0 draw with Malta - shows how a previously competitive team have been getting the results of Europe's real minnows, and that dismal form has continued into this campaign. An opening 4-0 thrashing at the feet of Wales was followed on Thursday by a 3-0 home defeat to Serbia, deepening the depression around the side. Some believe the 10,000-seater stadium could be half-empty tonight, and virtually no-one believes they can get anything off Ireland.
That should mean Martin O'Neill's side have no problems ultimately getting the win and making it six points from six against the group's two bottom seeds, but the wonder is whether the squad could do with a little more edge to the occasion, to provoke a crackle of energy again. It has been one of the most conspicuous aspects of the two games so far. Ireland have been quite listless and haven't really carried through any of the energy of Euro 2016.
It's of course possible that all of this is an inevitable hangover from the huge events that the matches in France were, but O'Neill wasn't really willing to let the players rest up until it passed on Thursday against Georgia. With the score 0-0 at half-time, he subjected the players to what some felt was one of his most furious team talks since taking the job. It didn't exactly lift the side in terms of how they attacked, though. They still needed captain Seamus Coleman to lead by example - and blunt force - to score.
That meant they got the win, but the question that continues to simmer away underneath is whether the performance means the side could struggle for key wins when it comes down to it.
Many close to the squad fairly point out that the same questions were being asked in the Euro 2016 campaign, only for Ireland to rise to the occasion late on when it was required. They grew into it, rendering flat early displays irrelevant. That might well be a pattern with this team, and just a natural consequence of how O'Neill psychologically manages his squad.
Stephen Ward is also one of a few players who feels that it's a little unrealistic to expect to so readily recreate the fervour of France, but acknowledges a need for improvement. It was a common theme after the game in fact, with the players well aware they hadn't been at their best against Georgia.
"I think they're different type of games," Ward said. "They came here, when we had the ball and sat off, and sometimes that can make it difficult and you know, maybe, as you've seen in France when we're playing against so-called bigger nations, it's up to them to come out at us and when we break it's at a much higher intensity. Sometimes it's hard to do that when you've got two banks of four and five so, listen, we need to do more to break down teams. We need to improve, we need to put them under a lot more pressure than we did, especially in the first half.
"We'll know we have to improve but the most important thing is we know we can improve. That's not us at our best.
"It's a quick turnaround. We'll recover quickly, and prepare, prepare right."
It is that preparation, though, that raises other questions. Is it possible that the O'Neill regime has too often substituted that energy and intensity for a defined attacking approach? Are they too reliant on motivation rather than co-ordinated attacking movement? The approach throughout the Georgia game didn't indicate much design. Ireland didn't really "play", or look to construct attacks. They instead repeatedly tried 40-yard diagonals forward, that were all too easily beaten away. It said much that the only goal came from a direct Coleman run that seemed a venting of frustration at how little Ireland were doing, rather than from a pattern of play.
From that, is it fair to ask what kind of attacking coaching O'Neill and Roy Keane do in that regard? What planned moves do they try?
Even from the way the players were talking, it seems a lot is dependent on individual moments of inspiration rather than a team's collective integration.
"When they sit back, you're trying balls in narrow gaps that maybe you wouldn't try," Ward says. "A few times I tried to play James [McClean] in behind, they're cut out but, you know, you need to try these things to break these teams down. If you just keep going from side to side, it's not going to work. There are times when you stretch teams, and try get in behind, and sometimes it will work, sometimes it won't, but you have to realise that these risks are to be taken in the final third. Otherwise, we can pass the ball sideways all day and not get a goal."
Those close to the squad say that some players feel more could be done in that area, that there could be more work on the training ground. The attacking instructions are said to be basic, and that is why someone with the imagination of Wes Hoolahan has such a massive impact when he plays.
He is certain to play tonight with the injured Robbie Brady and suspended Jeff Hendrick out, and that creativity is likely to be enough. O'Neill has been showing his players clips of Moldova over the past two days, and they won't have looked all that impressive.
Despite Moldova manager - and former USSR international - Igor Dobrovolski playing a defensive game and trying a 5-3-1-1 formation, their backline has a tendency to collapse, and is made even more fragile in this game by injuries to Igor Armas and captain Alexandru Epureanu. The pace of winger Alexandru Dedov does pose a threat, but Moldova generally struggle to construct attacks of their own.
In other words, it would be a huge surprise if Moldova get anything from this game. That is still a possibility that O'Neill's players are attuned to.
"You can probably liken it to a cup game, against a League One or Two team," Jon Walters says. "If the attitude is not right, there can be upsets. We'll treat it as a huge game, which it is."
It's just that it mightn't have the atmosphere of a cup game. Ireland will have to create the right mood themselves - or at least create more opportunities.
Sunday Indo Sport