Monday 19 February 2018

O'Neill demands same high level from new faces

Manager shuffles deck to gain better picture of squad's capabilities as Euro 2012 veterans hope to clear Poznan hangover with victory

Kevin Doyle and Stephen Ward share a light-hearted moment during the Irish training session in Poznan last night
Kevin Doyle and Stephen Ward share a light-hearted moment during the Irish training session in Poznan last night
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Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

AND so, the first proper test for the new regime brings us to the place that exposed the failings of the old one.

Poznan may be remembered fondly by the hordes of the Ireland fans that descended upon central Poland 17 months ago, but it was the main square that provided the most jubilant scenes, not the stands of the Municipal Stadium.

The anticipation before the opening match with Croatia was eventually worn down into a lament, while the dead rubber with Italy, ironically enough, wound up with large sections of the crowd defending their right to come to Poland for a singsong and hitting back at Roy Keane in the process.


Only 200 or so visiting punters will be present here tonight to support a team which has Keane in the dugout next to Martin O'Neill. A lot has changed in a short space of time.

"I walked in the door there and realised I remembered this room," said Robbie Keane, when the Euros were inevitably brought into the pre-match press conference discussion. "Obviously, they're not great memories, but they're gone now."

Indeed, when the Tallaght man, who will start on the bench this evening due to his troublesome Achilles, was pressed for further elaboration along the lines that it would be nice to leave with a positive glow this time around, O'Neill was quick to interject.

"I am hoping he doesn't get that out of his system for a while," he said, stressing that the determination to right the wrongs of the summer of 2012 could help drive this group towards the next European Championships.

Indeed, he noted that the only sense of despondency around the camp in the past seven days was on Friday afternoon when comments were passed on the beginning of the World Cup play-offs, the original target for 2013.

In a way, the burning disappointment it revealed has heartened Giovanni Trapattoni's successor. The good vibes of Friday's victory over Latvia succeeded in lifting everyone's spirits, but O'Neill knows this game will present a sterner test. He watched the Poles cause problems for England recently, even if was the final game of a campaign where they only managed to register wins against Moldova and San Marino.

Robert Lewandowski, who is fondly recalled in Poznan, where his exploits with Lech earned a move to Borussia Dortmund, is their most potent threat although the visiting rearguard can take heart from the manner in which he was silenced in Dublin earlier this year.

O'Neill is planning to rotate his defensive options and is due to give centre-halves Sean St Ledger and Alex Pearce a chance to figure at some point, but it would be a surprise if he didn't start with John O'Shea as his skipper.


The challenge for the Derry man is to find the balance between continuity and experimentation, for he wants to build on his debut success. "We will make some changes," he stressed. "It will be nice to have a better knowledge of the players at the end of two games than if I played the same side again."

A high-tempo approach at the Aviva was the key to a positive start, but Latvia's limitations enhanced the strategy. Poland are better in possession, and therefore the Irish game plan will have to be modified.

"Poland are a fine side and we are away from home so we just have to adjust it accordingly," said O'Neill (61). "That said, I will want, when we have the ball, to be positive and really go and play, and try to perform to the same sort of standards as the other night."

When Wes Hoolahan was selected on Friday, there was a feeling that others would feature here, but the loss of Andy Reid and the enforced benching of Keane means that he could see more action than originally planned.

Shane Long is poised to start up top, but O'Neill could feasibly look at playing Hoolahan, Jon Walters, Anthony Stokes or even Aiden McGeady in the hole, although they each have very different characteristics. Another consideration is going with two strikers and pushing Walters, Stokes or Kevin Doyle in an advanced brief next to Long.

"The changes might – and no excuses early on here, it's nothing to do with that – they might disrupt our rhythm a little bit," continued the manager.

"But I have to find out what players are capable of doing."

O'Neill expressed some surprise that no club manager had been in touch to request kid-glove treatment of an important player, but it's possible that he will take some players out of the firing line after 45 minutes.

For the sake of his own education, though, you sense that he would like key components of his future plans such as Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy to further their development. Neither were at the Euros so they don't have any Poznan demons to worry about.

A bumper turnout was predicted for this fixture until Poland's 2-0 defeat to Slovakia in Wroclaw on Friday, which immediately killed the optimism surrounding new boss Adam Nawalka.

Still, some locals feel the attendance could reach the 30,000 mark, and that's with a lower turnout of visiting supporters than was originally anticipated; the hoteliers and publicans of Poznan who believed they were going to enjoy another Irish jackpot were sorely mistaken.

The FAI, on the other hand, hope to have secured the ticket that will finally clear the hangover from that Polish summer, which lingered on through the World Cup campaign.

For now, results matter little but the importance of momentum cannot be understated. A positive result tonight will make for a happier Christmas.

Poland v Rep of Ireland,

Live, Setanta Ireland, 7.45

Irish Independent

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