Friday 23 February 2018

O'Neill calls on underdogs to 'play without fear'

Daniel McDonnell , in London

MICHAEL O'NEILL knows this is the one that everybody has been waiting for.

The hardest game his team will face on this Europa League adventure? Well, the November temperatures in Kazan might decide that question. But this is the glamour tie, the Kodak moment. A trip to a ground that most of these Shamrock Rovers players will only ever have seen on television.

They were excited about training there last night and the buzz will grow during the day. With approximately 3,500 Irish fans expected in the stadium, it will hit fever pitch around kick-off time.

The Tottenham A-listers might be in the stands; but the B-listers are an elite bunch in their own right. And while O'Neill seeks to piece together information and predict what Harry Redknapp might have in store, he knows that the main concern must be that his players are focused and relaxed.

"I don't see apprehension," he said. "A lot of that can be influenced by how the opposition start the game. But listen, there's no problem with the players being nervous. We want them to have that edge, a nervous energy that will transfer into a positive mindset.

"The young lads should have no fear. It's an opportunity they should embrace, because they don't get an opportunity to play in stadiums like this on a regular basis. You don't want it to pass them by."

Who will get the chance though? O'Neill will let the players know at 3.0 this afternoon, and some will have slept uncomfortably.

Redknapp's revelation that Aaron Lennon will play has made pace a key element of team selection. Likely left-full Andros Townsend also has that quality in abundance.

Decisions have to be made. There should be a chance for Gary McCabe to start on the right side of midfield in a 4-5-1, with the experiment of trying the creative Ronan Finn in that role against Rubin Kazan failing to work.

Finn's ball retention should see him drafted into the midfield three, where Stephen Rice should figure, leaving Stephen O'Donnell and Conor McCormack vying for the other role.

O'Neill hinted that ex-Spurs man Rohan Ricketts might be effective as an option coming off the bench. It would be a surprise, but the 28-year-old is short of match fitness and the alternative, Billy Dennehy, is a speedster who could track back if Lennon is in full flight.

Goalkeeper Ryan Thompson has barely trained this week and the odds are stacked against his recovery. If he wakes this morning still feeling any effects of a shoulder problem, then Englishman Richard Brush will get the nod.

Centre-half Craig Sives has shaken off a knock and will take his place alongside another Englishman, skipper Dan Murray, who was a Spurs fan as a child, although the Cambridge native was a 'TV fan' rather than a White Hart Lane regular.


Nevertheless, the fixture has special resonance for Murray, a former Peterborough defender who now gets the chance to play at a major venue in his native land.

"Personally, it's always been a dream to play in a Premier League ground," he said. "I never thought I'd get the chance being in Ireland."

The priority is to ensure that the dream lives up to expectations. Seasoned Rovers fans, knowing where the club has come from, will appreciate the experience whatever the result, but there is professional pride at stake for the protagonists.

"Our message has always been to embrace these games," stressed O'Neill, "To be fair, away from home, they've done that.

"There's been performances in Modena (v Juventus), Copenhagen, and Belgrade of a very high-calibre, so I don't think that fear factor will exist."

Instead, it's about finding the X-Factor.

Spurs -- Gomes, Walker, Bassong, Corluka, Townsend; Lennon, Pienaar, Livermore, Rose; Giovani; Pavlyuchenko.

Shamrock Rovers -- Brush, Sullivan, Murray, Sives, Stevens; McCabe, Rice, Finn, O'Donnell, Dennehy; Twigg.

Spurs v Shamrock Rovers,

Live, TV 3, 8.05

Irish Independent

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