Monday 23 September 2019

No excuses - Ireland have to perform in local derby

O'Neill has some big hitters back but it's North who are punching above their weight

Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The visit of Northern Ireland to Dublin always had the potential to be slightly awkward for Martin O'Neill.

It's naturally unusual for an international manager to come up against the country he used to represent, especially when O'Neill was captain of the side that made waves at the 1982 World Cup.

Throw in the political angle, the tension arising from the recruitment of players, and the likelihood of a boisterous away support, and this will be a different type of friendly match. James McClean's presence will make sure of that.

But for the home manager, the possible cause for strife here is not so much related to the identity of the opponents. Rather, it's their profile and what that says about a use of resources.

Throughout a difficult year, O'Neill has consistently referenced the poor hand he is working with relative to opponents. He is envious of opposing managers able to call on talents such as Christian Eriksen and Gareth Bale, when he is reliant on players drawn from the Championship.

Excuse

When it comes to Northern Ireland, there is no such excuse available. Michael O'Neill is working off a smaller pool of players.

He has three current Premier League operators in this squad, whereas the Republic have nine although Michael Obafemi and Caoimhin Kelleher are rookies. Still, that is excluding James McCarthy, Shane Long, Ciaran Clark and late withdrawal Matt Doherty.

More pertinently, Martin O'Neill has generally overlooked outfield players operating below Championship level, although Ronan Curtis might get on the pitch tonight.

Those plying their trade in the Scottish Premier League have also fallen down his pecking order. Adam Rooney couldn't get a look-in while on fire at Aberdeen. Daryl Horgan is out of the picture since joining Hibs.

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Northern Ireland have nine Scottish-based performers in their panel, while the younger O'Neill has also called on five players employed in League One. He tried to make a move for Hearts defender Jimmy Dunne who couldn't get a look-in with Noel King's U-21 side until Northern Ireland expressed an interest.

The FAI's supremo then named him in his provisional squad for this match before trimming him from the final panel, conceding that he was behind other players in the queue. That's a luxury that the former Shamrock Rovers manager would like.

Admittedly, injuries have severely weakened the Republic's options this autumn but Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady are back in the fold now. There should be a more familiar look about the starting team and the Lansdowne Road patrons are entitled to expect a better performance.

The defensive ship was steadied somewhat in last month's UEFA Nations League double-header. But the absence of a goal hinted at a deeper problem. O'Neill does have quantity in terms of forward options, but the jury is out on the quality.

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Obafemi has only played a handful of Premier League minutes, but that's more than the other five striking options have managed in their entire careers. Still, it would be a kick in the teeth for a player to sit it out while an individual who doesn't feel ready to go to Denmark gets the minutes.

Callum Robinson is the player in form at Preston, yet the suspicion is that Seán Maguire might just be the most complete option available and he continues to receive positive mentions in dispatches from management.

That said, he's yet to get off the mark in this injury-interrupted season with Preston managing his return carefully enough.

He was paired with Scott Hogan in Turkey in March with O'Neill looking for a system that would get two strikers on the pitch. That was part of the logic in the 3-5-2 experiment which was finally adopted in a proper fixture last month.

The major question is whether he will stick with it. Coleman's presence is a factor in that debate.

The 66-year-old had suggested the Everton player could feature on the right side of a back three or at wing-back, but news of Doherty's unavailability was accompanied with the reference that it might result in a formation tweak. In other words, a return to a back four.

O'Neill tends to leave it late to name his team, while his opposite number has a good reputation for crafting game-plans tailored to specific fixtures, and the natives will need to have a coherent plan to unlock a savvy outfit.

Northern Ireland didn't score in October either and a squabble with Kyle Lafferty has made it a difficult autumn for them too; they are in danger of dropping out of the Nations League Group C.

"We will as a team try and be disciplined and be ready for the match," said O'Neill, when asked if there might be any tension. "I'm pretty sure it will be the same with Michael's side.

"He (O'Neill) has done very well. Their qualification for Euro 2016 was terrific and their efforts in World Cup qualifying equally good, getting to the play-offs.

"I think he's trying to change the side around now for the upcoming Euros. But overall, for the last couple of years, he's done exceptionally well."

It's safe to say that the 66-year-old would offer a similar assessment of his own performance, yet he's back in a position where there is a point to prove again. This is a friendly where the result is far from meaningless.

Irish Independent

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