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'The criticism is not going to win or lose you a game' - Defiant Martin O'Neill enters do-or-die territory

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during a press conference at the FAI NTC in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during a press conference at the FAI NTC in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

After the trials and tribulations of Tbilisi, the Ireland squad wound up in Nuremberg on Saturday.

The purpose was a refuelling stop, the consequence of the FAI's change of travel strategy midway through the Trapattoni era which means travelling on a smaller charter flight without media and supporters. With greater numbers, jetting straight home from Georgia would be viable.

But they had to take a break in Belgium on the way over and Germany on the way home and the latter stop did not go to plan.

"It took a little bit longer than normal," said manager Martin O'Neill yesterday, volunteering the information when pressed on the impact of the tight turnaround on the bodies.

"Another flight had pulled in ahead of us, so that took a little bit of time."

The selling point of the current set-up is that it gives the management and squad some privacy and they probably wanted to be alone in their thoughts following a dreadfully disappointing showing that has turned this evening's encounter with Serbia into a must-win game.

Serbian players help to move the goals at the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: STEPHEN MCCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Serbian players help to move the goals at the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: STEPHEN MCCARTHY/SPORTSFILE

O'Neill's spiky TV exchange in the aftermath of the Georgian fixture highlighted his disdain for any detractors and leaves the impression that offering him the opportunity for a quicker trip home with them on board might have posed a dilemma.

Sometimes that noise is a helpful distraction, though, and it can even be used in a strange way to galvanise the side and draw a response. Defiance tends to bring the best out of Irish teams and the language from the top table at the pre-match press conference hinted at a determination to put things right at the Aviva. O'Neill was keen to stress all the times that his men have been written off before.

"In the three years I've been involved competitively, the criticism has followed around, you know," he said.

"After the Scotland game in November (2014), a month after we'd drawn against Germany in Germany, we lost the game and it was doom and gloom.

Click to view full size graphic
Click to view full size graphic

"We drew with Scotland in June the following year and it was doom and gloom. And we were the ones that went to the Euros and performed very, very well. If we'd had one or two days after we'd beaten Italy, we may well have turned France over.

"And we've gone on from this to remain unbeaten. We haven't lost a competitive game despite some poor 25 minutes, half-an-hours, or even 45 minutes, as it was the other night. We remain unbeaten and those sort of things keep you going. The players sometimes have to be reminded of that."

Much as it can be a source of inspiration, the manager did acknowledge it can only bring you so far.

"The criticism is not going to win or lose you a game," he asserted. "It's what you do on the field that matters and if we play very, very strongly, we can win the game."

His squad should have no reason to think otherwise because they have defeated better sides than Serbia.

The group leaders are also unbeaten but, similar to Ireland, they have relied on some late goals to dress up their points tally and have conceded first in four of their seven games.

They were on the way to losses in both of their meetings with Wales until Aleksandar Mitrovic levelled things up in the final 15 minutes.

Georgia led against them and wasted chances to extend their advantage before falling to pieces in the second half. Austria caused Slavoljub Muslin's men plenty of problems in a 3-2 defeat.

Certainly, the group leaders have serious attacking talent in their ranks, the ability to cut teams open. In addition to Mitrovic, they have Dusan Tadic, and exciting Bundesliga duo Filip Kostic and Mijat Gacinovic

That said, they give teams opportunities at the other end and Ireland already know that having scored twice in a scatty game on the opening day of this campaign.

Granted, the Serbs were without Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov, but they have shown vulnerabilities when that experienced duo have been available.

The key for Ireland is to get their house in order. A radical tactical change is unlikely, yet O'Neill has indicated that he will freshen things up. Playing strongly means an aggressive display with better application, pressing opponents high and using the ball better.

Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady are two players vying to come into the starting XI and they have niggling injury problems. Jeff Hendrick is out. The main question in a reshuffle involves the deployment of Robbie Brady and it's possible that one of Glenn Whelan or Harry Arter could miss out.

Alternatively, using Brady on the left of midfield would free up James McClean to operate centrally as he did in a bright finish in Tbilisi. A wildcard could be reverting the Burnley man to left full ahead of Stephen Ward. Daryl Murphy and David Meyler have also served O'Neill well at various times and have to enter considerations.

The players will only find out shortly before the wider audience. O'Neill pointed out that the narrow window removes scope for training ground work; they have watched Georgia back but this is where the manager's motivational qualities will have to come to the fore.

This is do-or-die territory. In all likelihood, Ireland will drop to third place if they do not take three points. Win and they're in control at the top ahead of October's double header. This is the crossroads on any potential trip to Russia; bad first-half displays have cost the team in this group and a bright start is essential.

"What we want to try and do is get on the front foot against a really talented side," said O'Neill. "We've found ways before and we'll find ways again."

They will need a full petrol tank to get this job done.

Irish Independent

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