Wednesday 21 February 2018

Pressure on O'Neill to make most of an unexpected gift

Chronic lack of creativity threatens to undermine manager's optimism as games get harder on run-in

Keane has 67 goals for his country but when they consist of a tap-in and a penalty as they did on Friday, it is easy for some to dismiss them until the time comes when somebody else has to score the tap-in or take the penalty Photos: David Maher
Keane has 67 goals for his country but when they consist of a tap-in and a penalty as they did on Friday, it is easy for some to dismiss them until the time comes when somebody else has to score the tap-in or take the penalty Photos: David Maher
Robbie Keane celebrates his goal

Dion Fanning

As he stood in a corridor on the second floor of the Estadio Algarve on Friday night, Martin O'Neill's mood was as revealing as anything that happened an hour earlier on the pitch.

The day before, O'Neill had been chippy and defensive in his pre-match press conference, which nobody considered unusual as it was the face he has so often presented to the world since he became Ireland manager.

On Friday night, he was a different man. Victory against one of the worst teams in international football would surely not have brought such a transformation on its own. If Scotland had done what they had to do in Tbilisi earlier in the day, O'Neill might have spoken the same words late on Friday, but he probably would not have delivered them so forcefully, so purposefully and with such conviction.

The moment could be linked to the aftermath of the game against Scotland in June. Few wanted to listen to O'Neill then when he insisted that the group was "far from over". Ireland's lack of talent and creativity had hindered them when they searched for victory over the side which had beaten them in Glasgow. When O'Neill took Wes Hoolahan off in June, Ireland's imagination went with him.

While Ireland were written off after that draw, O'Neill insisted things could change. He balked at the idea that Ireland needed favours and it was a theme he returned to on Friday night. This wasn't a favour bestowed on Ireland by Georgia, this was simply football and "winning football matches is hard".

Improbably, Ireland can think about automatic qualification again but they will only be able to think about it for 48 hours if Georgia aren't defeated at the Aviva tomorrow night.

Scotland's bad weekend continued when their plane didn't arrive on time in Tbilisi on Friday night. They travelled through the night and arrived in Scotland yesterday morning. Dark and foreboding thoughts may be entering Scottish minds round about now but O'Neill's words from June still have weight: the group is far from over.

Losing in Georgia is the kind of thing Scottish teams have always done. Following it up by beating Germany tomorrow is also the kind of thing Scottish teams have always done.

Ireland now have their own tests. Germany and Poland are to come next month but Georgia is the only game O'Neill and his players are thinking about. Ireland are as capable as Scotland of throwing any advantage away.

On Friday night, Ireland had made the most of Scotland's result. O'Neill was tense on the touchline until the first goal went in and then Ireland needed Robbie Keane in the second half before they could relax.

"There was little point in Scotland getting beaten there if we didn't get something from the match or win the game," O'Neill said later.

"That was our main focus. Even if Scotland had won I think the players were ready for the match. I think we've to be ready on Monday night as well. It's a short turnaround. Georgia will come - I know it's a fair distance to travel - with renewed determination and spirit."

Ireland will hope to match them in those qualities. The cliché says that once Ireland work hard, their superior quality should overcome Georgia but Ireland's problem is that there is little evidence of superior quality, a shortage of creativity and a shortage of goals.

With three games remaining, O'Neill will be hoping that other factors are more important. He stressed on Friday that the players were playing with "great old determination and great old enthusiasm". These are important qualities but the danger is the lack of other gifts will prevent Ireland from qualifying.

"We make mistakes in the matches and we don't have an abundance of incredibly creative players in the side," he said, "but we are fighting, we're fighting away and we're doing our best. The creative players try and get on the ball as much as possible. We don't possess a Gareth Bale but we can try and work other ways to win the matches."

Ireland may yet need to beat somebody other than Georgia and Gibraltar but that is a problem that predates O'Neill and highlights the lack of talent in the Ireland squad.

James McCarthy again failed to provide much of any of the things a side would want from a central midfielder. If he is that inhibited against Gibraltar, there is not much hope for the games in October, or even tomorrow.

Ireland again needed Robbie Keane against Gibraltar. Keane insisted afterwards he had no idea he was one behind Gerd Muller's total of 68 international goals, and O'Neill said if he had known it wouldn't have changed his plan to substitute him. "He is 35 years of age now and we try and save him. He did his job tonight and we'll see how he goes," O'Neill said.

Keane had done his job. He has 67 goals for his country but when they consist of a tap-in and a penalty as they did on Friday, it is easy for some to dismiss them until the time comes when somebody else has to score the tap-in or take the penalty.

"Those games are games where you feel like he can pick up a goal," O'Neill added. "He had to be on the spot. Jon Walters has made a great run for it but that's Robbie, that's been Robbie all his career."

Keane has only scored against Gibraltar in this campaign but Ireland could need him against Georgia as they have always needed him against the smaller sides.

O'Neill was pleased too that Germany had beaten Poland. He feels the world champions are the outstanding team in the group and would be happy if Poland, Scotland and Ireland fought it out below them.

O'Neill may feel that things have turned a little bit in Ireland's favour. He was virtually alone when he insisted Ireland had done well against Scotland in June but now Ireland will need to make more of whatever moments of superiority they have.

"The players are in good spirits. They were in good spirits anyway before. I think that they felt in the Scottish game we probably should have been two up by half-time and so it was disappointing in the second half to concede so early on and lose a bit of momentum."

Ireland have not improved spectacularly in the three months since the home draw against Scotland. On Friday night, Ireland's lack of creativity and leadership was unlikely to be exposed but the games get harder from this point on.

On Friday night, O'Neill appeared to savour that prospect. If he has doubts about the side they don't centre on the determination of his players. Maybe he feels that will be enough in the tense games to come in October. He spoke with energy and passion as he considered what was required from here, how hard it is to win games and to get a side where you want it to go.

In Belfast and Cardiff they may be celebrating over the next two days as the expansion of the European Championships delivers its prize.

Ireland were supposed to be beneficiaries too but so far they have been unable to make the most of that gift. They were handed another one on Friday in Tbilisi. O'Neill sees it differently. This is how football works. Ireland need to make it work in their favour tomorrow night.

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