Martin O’Neill desperate for positives from Oman game ahead of Georgia trip
Darron Gibson eager to make up for lost time after his cruciate ligament injury against Kazakhstan
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at yesterday’s press conference in Malahide. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
For all their faults, Fifa’s world rankings are occasionally useful for getting a sense of the general whereabouts of a team in football’s great scheme of things and an indication of whether its trajectory is currently up or down. Supporters of a sensitive disposition would be generally well advised to look away should the Republic of Ireland’s appear on screen during the Oman game tonight.
For managers, the rankings can be seized upon as critically important evidence of progress being made when times are good and dismissed out of hand when results go bad. Giovanni Trapattoni, of course, is an exception to the rule, for the Italian simply never seemed to accept over the last year or so of his tenure that his team was on the slide, and used to point to the progress he had overseen with regard to the international ladder long after it had ceased to be true.
Ireland’s last encounter with Oman was in September 2012, a little after Euro 2012 had started his team’s movement in the wrong direction. By Fifa’s reckoning, Ireland were the 26th best team on the planet at that stage, Oman the 93rd and, even allowing for the old adage that there are no easy games in international football anymore, the encounter at Craven Cottage – which ended in a 4-1 victory for Ireland – was about as accurate a reflection of those numbers as the Italian or any of the rest of us could have hoped for.
Lower-rankedTwo years on and Ireland have somehow just been spared the embarrassment of being the lower-ranked side for the rematch; neither played a proper international last month but on the basis of points from previous years being lost or downgraded, Ireland still moved up from 70 to 66 in the current world list while tonight’s opponents dropped two places to 67.
There are times when a manager could do with making a bit of a nonsense of these things and though the game has little real significance, this appears to be one of them for Martin O’Neill.
The manager, of course, has other fish to fry, for after nearly 10 months in the job this is his final opportunity to weigh things up before he picks a team for a competitive game. Georgia looms large and a win there, particularly a stylish one, would overshadow almost anything that could transpire tonight.
To judge by his comments at yesterday’s press conference, O’Neill still has choices to make on several fronts as he seeks to hit upon a winning formula, with the inclusion from the start of Darron Gibson, a suggestion, perhaps, that central midfield is one of the areas in which he is open to persuasion.
Shay Given looks like getting a start – his first for more than two years – and Rob Elliott is also expected to feature while James McClean, Stephen Ward and Kevin Doyle are amongst the others who might benefit from a run-out.
Tonight’s gameMcClean’s fitness, though, is an issue while James McCarthy is out of tonight’s game with a view to ensuring he is fit for Sunday’s. Joey O’Brien, meanwhile, has left the squad and returned to London for treatment on a recurring knee problem and Jon Walters is also carrying a slight knock going into the game. “It’ll be a bit of a mixed team,” said O’Neill of his intention to juggle sure-fire starters for Tbilisi with those who have more to prove.
Gibson is probably one of the leading members of the latter group although it would be unfair to expect too much in his first match back since tearing his cruciate in an international against Kazakhstan almost a year ago, and before he has featured competitively for Everton this season. The 26-year-old, nevertheless, described the news that he would start as “a big opportunity” and said that his long lay-off has prompted a fair bout of reflection during which he had come to appreciate the need to “play more games and push on”.
With his team having now gone six games without winning, O’Neill will be hoping for a performance like the one against Italy in London, rather than the slightly chaotic display against Portugal in the US.
There may, he suggested, be some time spent on the development of a tactical Plan B, with a switch to three at the back at some stage mentioned – though perhaps only so the Derryman could mention once more how familiar the fashionable again system has always been to him.
The priority, though, must be for the players to be on top of Plan A, for a slip-up in Georgia would deny his team the opportunity of building up any sort of momentum before October’s trip to Gelsenkirchen.