Saturday 17 March 2018

O'Neill plays down expectations but destiny is in Ireland's hands

Wales’ talisman Gareth Bale. Photo: PA
Wales’ talisman Gareth Bale. Photo: PA

John Fallon

Ever-concious of maintaining diplomatic relations with his Celtic cousins, Martin O'Neill had to bite his tongue last week when informed only Seamus Coleman made it into a combined Wales/Ireland XI drawn from a fans' poll.

That the exercise was conducted by BBC Wales added some perspective to an outcome skewed in favour of a team currently four points adrift of O'Neill's table-toppers in World Cup qualification Group D.

Still, with the Welsh next up for Ireland in March at Lansdowne Road, the proud Derryman recoiled at his players getting such a raw deal for their stellar start to the campaign.

"Well, is that right?" began O'Neill, touching his spectacles. "Aaron Ramsey is back fit again, Gareth Bale has played all the matches for them and the little boy Joe Allen is proving a better player than anybody ever gave him credit for at Swansea and as a bit-part player at Liverpool.

"That poll is heavily weighted on the Welsh side, in terms of the people who were picking, but there you go. Whether we're in total agreement about 10 of them playing in a combined side . . . well, that's their choice."

Divided opinions on players doesn't diminish the context of the group. For Wales to play catch-up on Ireland and Serbia, then victory in Dublin is essential. Had the Welsh seen out last week's meeting with the Serbs without conceding a last-minute equaliser, then snaffling a point might have constituted an adequate return.

The 10 points garnered so far place Ireland's destiny in their own hands heading into 2017, when all three of their main rivals visit Dublin.

All of the soundbites from O'Neill suggest he considers Serbia the most likely to mount a challenge for top spot, the only automatic passage to Russia in 2018, but the threat Gareth Bale poses and the surge of the Welsh to the Euro semi-finals represent a clear and present danger despite their stuttering start to this campaign.

"When you've got Gareth Bale in your side, Wales will feel as if they can still come away from home and win matches," cautioned O'Neill.

"Their experiences at the Euros and the qualifying campaign for that tournament will mean this campaign won't faze them.

"I'm not so sure Wales got a hangover from the Euros. If they did, it probably would have happened in their first two games - and they got four points from those.

"Of course, there are expectations there which come from doing so well at the Euros, being seeded first in our group and becoming favourites to qualify. So, any points dropped at home, as they did against Georgia and Serbia, is seen as not so good."

For all the strides made so far approaching the midway point of the series, and leading Serbia by two points as well, O'Neill refuses to countenance the notion his team are favourites to emerge from the group.

"Us?" he bristles when presented with the scenario. "We're fourth seeds in the group so I don't think we can think after four games that we're favourites.

"Serbia's delight at getting that late equaliser in Wales last week shows you were they stand, where they feel they are.

"Wales, I'm absolutely convinced of this, will not feel as if they are out of it. However, of the four sides, Austria will be the most disappointed having dropped three points to us."

If the assertion made by John Giles last week that O'Neill has a knack of talking up his rivals is accurate, then equally he's eager to acknowledge the strides made by his own players. Coleman has excelled in the captain's role, James McClean has come of age and Jeff Hendrick is blossoming into the type of midfield powerhouse James McCarthy can only aspire to be.

For that reason, no bogus newcomers need apply. Ireland's improved status in the football world order may have those dual-eligibility players previously sitting on the fence inclined to jump on the bandwagon. O'Neill knows he has to balance the necessity for new blood with preserving a unified camp.

"There can certainly come a stage where you feel that you have the people who helped build your house and then somebody wants to come along and build a chimney on top," he noted.

"I think you have to really want to play for a start, and then everything is made that little bit easier.

"I wouldn't want to think that someone is putting their hand up to play for us when we've played seven or eight games and our position, either good or bad, has been determined.

"That's kind of easy, and I think that would go against those people who have helped you qualify."

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