Shane Long looking to be heir apparent
Striker seems certain to be given chance to cement his status as next main forward
Republic of Ireland squad training at Gannon Park, Malahide, yesterday, ahead of tonight’s friendly against Serbia. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
If Shane Long never quite seemed to recover his standing under Giovanni Trapattoni after events nearly 18 months ago in Belgrade, the striker looks set to get an opportunity to make himself central to Martin O’Neill’s plans in tonight’s return game against Serbia.
Confusion over the striker’s fitness back then prompted the Italian to ridicule him at a press conference the morning after the game.
Long got chances from Trapattoni subsequently but never seemed to completely enjoy his confidence.
O’Neill suggested yesterday that he is more open to being convinced by the 27-year-old although he clearly seems to believe that even at this point in his career, the striker still has some work to do in order to deliver on his considerable promise.
“If Shane Long comes through in the manner in which he is capable of,” he said at his pre-match press conference, “then that would be terrific. Robbie’s not going to be around forever.”
Having Plan B
The new manager would appear to have brought in Daryl Murphy to weigh up his potential to serve as the sort of Plan B he has often employed as a preferred approach to attacking at club level.
First, though, Long seems certain to be allowed the opportunity to cement his status as the team’s next main striker. In the circumstances, he could do with this evening’s performance being more akin to the one against England at Wembley than against Wales in Cardiff, with Murphy likely to get a look in over the course of the night and O’Neill suggesting that “we want to score goals and if the means of scoring goals is different to what the team is used to, then so be it.”
The other upshot of Robbie Keane being absent this week is that the captain’s armband is up for grabs.
John O’Shea filled in at yesterday’s press conference and it would be dangerous to read much at all into O’Neill’s suggestion that he might leave the Sunderland defender out of tonight’s starting line up in order to look at some of his less familiar options.
O’Shea, though, arrives off the back of Sunday’s Wembley League Cup final defeat and he was rested – initially at least – in Poland where O’Neill also started Jon Walters as skipper after Keane had appeared at the press conference so nothing should be taken for granted.
Richard Keogh is certainly in the manager’s thoughts and got more than one mention yesterday while O’Neill gives every indication of seeing Marc Wilson as one of the team’s two first choice centre-halves.
All of which would appear to add up to a third straight start for Stephen Ward; quite a reprieve for a man whose performances at Euro 2012 seemed to have damaged him rather more fatally in Trapattoni’s eyes than Long’s complaints a couple of months later.
Almost certainly feature
O’Shea, in any case, seems set to be spared having to play the entire 90 minutes tonight but will still almost certainly feature for a good portion of the evening, whether it is early or late on. The other major question mark hangs over one of the wings with James McClean possibly getting the nod over Walters.
James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan, Seamus Coleman, Aiden McGeady and David Forde look well placed to fill the remaining spots although, in truth, O’Neill gave absolutely nothing away and seemed, more than once, to move to muddy the waters in the event that even a vaguely firm impression was being conveyed.
O’Neill did insist that he feels an obligation to “attack Serbia and give the fans something to cheer about”.
There was talk too of the players enjoying more license to “express themselves” although when O’Shea joked that, as a defender, he was not entirely happy with such reckless talk, his manager then moved to dampen down expectations on that score too, insisting: “these are easy words to use today; obviously they refer to things that will be harder to do tomorrow.”
O’Shea maintains that the players’ collective confidence has been lifted by the new management team and that will certainly be important against a side that, despite having been seeded below Ireland for last week’s European Championship draw, are ranked 38 places higher by Fifa and possess some really outstanding individual talents.
Precisely how fussed they will be about this game remains to be seen but O’Neill accepts that his men have plenty to play for with Ireland’s Fifa ranking in need of some work between now and the next World Cup qualifying draw and the team needing to demonstrate, to themselves as much as anyone else, that they really are capable of beating sides of significant quality before Scotland, Poland and, more dauntingly, Germany come to town.
O’Shea was asked about drawing the Germans again and said all the right things with the veteran defender insisting that the players would want to make amends for the humiliation inflicted when Joachim Löw’s side last came here.
It would be nice if it proves to be possible but it would be a bonus; beating Ireland’s rivals for second place is likely to count for more and we should at least have a slightly better idea if that’s a realistic prospect by the time Serbia head for the airport, and home, this evening.