Painful Poznan can turn to positive Poznan if productive patterns provided
O’Neill should learn more about the group he has inherited with sterner test tonight
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane (right) enjoys a lighter moment during last night’s squad training session at the Municipal Stadium in Poznan, Poland. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Like the old town’s main square, Poznan’s Miejski Stadium feels rather different when it’s not packed out with Irish fans but the sense of disappointment still lingers somehow.
Giovanni Trapattoni’s tenure hit the rocks here and while he spent the next year trying to refloat things, the games against Croatia and Italy at Euro 2012 marked the beginning of the end.
No better place then, for his successor to signal the start in earnest of the team’s new era.
Friday’s defeat of Latvia was easy, too easy really, and O’Neill accepted last night he should learn a little more about the group he has inherited if they are tested more sternly in this, his second match in charge.
Making life difficult
Poland are in far from great shape themselves despite O’Neill seeking to talk them up but they should certainly be capable of making life difficult for the visitors this evening and shouldn’t be lacking motivation either after a poor performance against Slovakia on Friday night was badly received by supporters and press alike.
The new Ireland manager described his own players’ performance at the weekend as “exceptionally good” here but will nonetheless press ahead with plans for major changes as continues to weighing up what is available to him.
Although David Forde is expected to replace Keiren Westwood, the only player the manager confirmed would step aside was his skipper Robbie Keane, with the 33-year-old’s ongoing Achilles problem prompting the decision to rest him, at least at the outset, and, most likely, opening the way for John O’Shea to captain the side for the first time since the game against Wales in August.
Keane’s decision to come along this week, though, seems to have helped cement the bond between captain and manager, with O’Neill having to claim at one point from the top table last night that they are not a “mutual appreciation society” even as everything they were saying pointed to the contrary.
“Robbie won’t start tomorrow night,” said the 61-year-old. “He’s had an Achilles problem that’s been chronic now for a while. It’s something that, now that he’s going to get a little bit of a break with the LA, he’s going to get it sorted out and my doctor said to me that if I wasn’t going to start him in the game tomorrow night that perhaps he might stay and he might be able to get an appointment a week earlier . . . and a week, you know, for the amount of time that he’s off, might have been important.
“I gave that some consideration but deep down I wanted Robbie to come and the moment he said ‘I’m coming’, I think that spoke volumes for him, it really did, and I was really pleased that even if he had an opportunity to get something sorted out on Wednesday of this week, he was prepared to leave it go to travel.”
Assuming he does indeed play, meanwhile, O’Shea will also anchor a defence that may well be reshaped enough to give Sean St Ledger and Stephen Kelly starts.
It is further up the field that O’Neill faces what appear to be more interesting choices, especially in attack where Wes Hoolahan looks set to make way for a second striker, with Jon Walters, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long and Anthony Stokes all waiting to get a better sense of where they sit in the new man’s pecking order.
James McClean certainly did enough on Friday to keep his place and though O’Neill declared himself to be “not overly pleased,” with the winger’s latest Twitter escapade since, the manager said it would not significantly influence his decision on whether to start him again.
In the absence of Darron Gibson, who would surely have had more than most to prove back here, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan may be kept together, although it will be interesting to see whether O’Neill shares his predecessor’s enthusiasm for Paul Green, who rarely let the Italian down.
The task tonight in that department will, as the manager pointed out, involve a good deal more defensive work than it did on Friday and the trick will be to retain as much as possible of the improved passing and movement we saw then against players capable of pressing and using the ball well themselves.
‘A very fine side’
“We’ve got things to work on and I expect that to show tomorrow night,” said O’Neill. “Poland are a very fine side and they will have the ball – they went to Wembley a few weeks ago and had loads of the ball despite being the away team.”
Ultimately, they were beaten 2-0 that night, though, and they have failed to score in any of their last three after a run before that of just one without a goal in 15 games.
That they can usually trouble opposing defences should not come as a surprise for Robert Lewandowski is an outstanding striker – as he has tended to show in his games against Ireland – with a decent supporting cast that could include Lech Poznan star Lukasz Teodorczyk, who has three goals in three appearances for the national team so far.
Containing them would be a minor achievement in itself but tonight should, once again, be more about the team’s ability to produce positive patterns of play against a side of similar ability.
A win won’t even start to erase the painful memories of June 2012 but a strong performance and continued sense that confidence is being injected back into the group might help lay the foundation for better times when the nation next takes a collective continental holiday, hopefully in France.