Martin O’Neill has change of heart and would now welcome extra friendly after setback

Republic of Ireland’s defending this week certainly looks like something that would benefit from a few intensive training sessions

Republic of Ireland’s Shane Long reacts to another missed chance in Wednesday’s game against Serbia.

Republic of Ireland’s Shane Long reacts to another missed chance in Wednesday’s game against Serbia.

Fri, Mar 7, 2014, 01:00

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill insists that no final decision has been made on his side’s end-of-season friendlies in the United States but, with tickets due to go on sale on Monday morning for the match against Portugal, deadline day must be getting close.

The FAI’s preference is to add a second American game so as to make the trip more financially rewarding but O’Neill has suggested that a three-game programme – Turkey in Dublin and Italy (almost certainly) at Craven Cottage have already been confirmed – would be ideal, with the northerner anxious to avoid eating too far into players’ summer holidays.

“We’ve mentioned the fact to the players that there is a possibility of some extra games and I don’t think they’re overly surprised or disappointed by that. Things have not been finalised as we speak – I’m leaving that to other people – but obviously we have two games confirmed; a third game would be ideal and if there happens to be a fourth game, fine.”

Extra few days
The games, however many there ends up being, have the potential to be important but the time on the training ground might be more so if Wednesday’s performance against Serbia is anything to go by. There are some things – Shane Long’s finishing, for instance – that are beyond being sorted at this stage by an extra few days working with Roy Keane and, quite possibly, John Robertson but Ireland’s defending this week certainly looks like something that would benefit from a few intensive sessions.

O’Neill’s concern over the timing of things is understandable. The Championship campaign is due to finish over the first weekend of May, with the Premier League wrapping up on Sunday the 11th. A few players may be involved in the play-offs but for the rest of them the prospect of still being away with the national team a month later is probably not the most attractive of pospects.

If the players are serious about the Euro 2016 campaign, though, they must know in the wake of Wednesday’s defeat that some serious work is required. O’Neill played down the significance of the loss just as Gordon Strachan shrugged off the importance of winning in Warsaw but the Scot admitted that the boost to confidence was important while his predecessor at Celtic sought consolation in the idea that it is better to have his side’s deficiencies exposed now rather than when the competitive games get under way.

Some merit
That has some merit to it but his employers would presumably have preferred the “feelgood factor” John Delaney has been hailing of late to be maintained into the summer and beyond. Instead, as David Forde put it afterwards, the result has brought everyone “back down to earth”. Getting airborne again before December will be a key task now for O’Neill.

Long’s failure to take the chances that came his way must be a particular concern for the manager given the (understandable) doubts he has expressed about Robbie Keane’s ability to be involved in every game of the qualifying campaign but he is, at least, not alone in having concerns on the striking front.

It took a wonderful goal from Strachan’s skipper Scott Brown to secure victory in Warsaw and Scotland’s recent improvement under their new manager is a real worry but the fact that Darren Fletcher, with five goals in 62 games, was the top scorer in the squad named for the game is hardly awe-inspiring.

And while persistent under-performers Poland should have Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski (32 international goals between them) available in the autumn – neither of them played the other night due to injury – their record of late clearly points to attack being a problem area too.

Share the burden
Ireland’s energy and inventiveness, much of it attributable to Wes Hoolahan, in the early part of Wednesday’s game suggested that O’Neill is encouraging his players to share the burden of scoring with the sight of Glenn Whelan lining up a volley deep inside the area a fairly remarkable development while some of the set-piece routines in the November games highlighted the return that can be achieved by working on this side of things.

Ultimately, though, the second half on Wednesday provided a stark reminder of the defensive vulnerabilities that Giovanni Trapattoni always said he was trying to minimise. O’Neill, as he acknowledged afterwards, has seen them laid bare now and knows better than ever that it’s not, as some fans would like to believe, just about letting the players “express themselves”.

There is a lot of hard work to be done in May and June and O’Neill, one suspects, should probably take as much time as he can with the players in order to get it done.