Tuesday 12 December 2017

O’Neill gears up for do-or-die mission

But must-win element of crunch World Cup qualifier in Cardiff may become Ireland's undoing

Glenn Whelan keeps his eye on the ball during yesterday’s training session at Cardiff
City Stadium ahead of tonight’s crucial qualifier. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Glenn Whelan keeps his eye on the ball during yesterday’s training session at Cardiff City Stadium ahead of tonight’s crucial qualifier. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There's a lot of waiting around in international football.

Five-day build-ups to games with Moldova. Friendly windows with results of no consequences and few lessons are learned because of the absence of intensity. More talking than action.

They all build towards occasions like tonight, though, and when Scotland's misery in Slovenia was complete the atmosphere in Cardiff stepped up a notch. A scenario where an Ireland win could still end in disappointment risked a spectacular anti-climax.

That possibility is off the agenda now.

Both Wales and Ireland have 90 minutes to keep their World Cup ambitions alive and when the stakes are that high then the level of emotion that can be generated rivals anything on the club scene.

In England, where qualification is a routine exercise, these breaks are despised but to avid supporters of smaller nations - and players who will never get near the top table with their employers - they are everything.

Martin O'Neill addressed that point in the preliminaries. "I'm surprised about the thought that international football doesn't matter because it certainly does," he said. "The World Cup is still the biggest occasion in football.

"It doesn't come around as often as the Champions League, but it's a big, big competition, the biggest in the world. I don't think it's lost its lustre at all."

Ireland now have their destiny in their own hands. O'Neill always said this group would go to the wire and that prediction has proved accurate, even if Ireland have stumbled here from a position where they had the power to drain Wales of hope before this fixture even kicked off.

Any regrets have to be suspended because a 90-minute window remains to salvage the Russian mission.

O'Neill has even taken questions on the possibility of leaders Serbia losing at home to Georgia and creating a situation where three points tonight would send Ireland through as group winners. That really is fanciful talk.

Beating Wales on their own patch is doable and even if they are missing Gareth Bale, it would rival any other result achieved by O'Neill in this gig.

Landmark successes over Germany and Italy were fantastic achievements, but they didn't hurt the losers too much in the greater scheme of things.

The Derryman referenced the Lille game here and strongly protested that the Italian fringe players who came in had a real point to prove. However, it's impossible to compare their desire to increase competition for places with the weight on the shoulders of the hosts.

Wales feel they have a golden generation that can end a World Cup wait going back to 1958, so destroying that dream on their own patch would strike a dagger blow to Chris Coleman's side. Especially as they view Ireland as a beatable side.

That's the other thing about international football; when there's limited knowledge about opponents such as the Bosnian side that faced Ireland in the Euro 2016 play-off there is a tendency to talk them up and focus on stereotypes about their technical quality.

Wales are a better side to watch than Ireland, but this is not a trip into the unknown.

Both sets of players know the individual strengths and weaknesses of the opponents. Some are friends and colleagues.

Bale was on a pedestal and that respect was evident in a cagey Irish approach in March's scoreless draw. Wales have excellent players, yet they are a different proposition without him.

Challenge

Good as Aaron Ramsey is, the Arsenal man is a bit like the club he plays for in the sense that he can blow hot and cold. Members of the away dressing room shouldn't be fazed by the challenge of trying to unsettle him.

It remains to be seen where that figures in O'Neill's plan. He rarely gives away much on the eve of matches and keeps the players guessing until late too.

One could read between the lines of his musings at the Cardiff City Stadium and draw some conclusions based on references to the aforementioned Lille encounter.

Wes Hoolahan was saved for the bench to make an impact late in that game, and that could be his role again for this test. Robbie Brady and James McClean's availability give O'Neill options in the centre of the park.

The key tactical decision revolved around whether to stick with the diamond formation that was used against Serbia and Moldova or revert to a system with a lone striker and five in the middle. Monday morning's news that Shane Long is out of the game with a hip problem - O'Neill had alluded to players troubled by bumps and bruises in his press conference - tips the balance towards one up front with Daryl Murphy shouldering the burden.

Murphy regularly plays two games in quick succession at club level so the turnaround shouldn't be a concern.

"Daryl will have got a big lift from scoring two goals," said O'Neill, who appeared to be angling towards picking Murphy anyway. "I thought he put in a big shift for us and he's feeling not so bad."

If Ireland did go for something approaching a 4-2-3-1 then a gap to fill would be the berth usually filled by Jon Walters on the right. Jeff Hendrick could move that way and that would leave room for an extra body in the middle of the park with Harry Arter a contender to slot in next to David Meyler with James McClean left and Brady behind Murphy.

Hoolahan, and Aiden McGeady are the prominent alternatives that would be to the fore if Ireland were chasing things later in the game; the latter was also a sub in Lille. Long's woe means Sean Maguire or Scott Hogan will be the go-to strikers if things are desperate with David McGoldrick released back to his club along with Jonny Hayes and James McCarthy.

"The approach will be similar to Italy in Lille; a lot of verve and determination, closing them down," said O'Neill, "That was an epic game and it's not far back in the memory that the players shouldn't consider it.

"Obviously whatever gameplan we have, we're going to try and utilise it as best we possibly we can.

"There's a bit of everything in it, there's a bit of patience but you can be too patient. But at the same time we know at the end of the ninety minutes we've got to find ourselves in front."

Wales are in a similar boat. They do have a route to the play-offs involving a draw but that's only if the Group I game between Ukraine and Croatia in Kiev finishes level and doesn't have more goals in it than the match in Cardiff.

Banking

Given how that situation can change with a kick of the ball, they simply cannot be banking on that should this game enter the final quarter with nothing between the sides.

"Both sides have to win the game and at some stage or another we'll have to go for it," said O'Neill, "The game, I predict, will be wide open in the second half."

Like Bale, Seamus Coleman has reported to his team's camp to offer support. He was actually shouting goal updates from Slovenia to O'Neill as the Irish players trained. The Irish boss has thinly concealed the view that results in the second half of the campaign would have been better if his skipper was available.

Talk of revenge for the Neil Taylor tackle that felled Coleman was diplomatically batted away and it's not particularly relevant. Ireland shouldn't need any extra motivation. This one is going to go all the way.

Verdict: Wales 1 Ireland 1

Irish Independent

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