Martin O'Neill has some major decisions to make. Despite the amazing fact that his team only conceded seven goals in 10 group games, our defence was creaky in Warsaw. That needs to be put right because those who think Bosnia and Herzegovina will be another Estonia type play-off can forget it.
Most of these players featured in the World Cup in Brazil, including sharp attackers like Senad Lulic from Lazio and the Roma pair of Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko. They are not Estonia.
While Richard Keogh and John O'Shea looked reasonably solid in the win over Germany, both struggled against the Polish attack. Only Seamus Coleman looked the real deal, with Robbie Brady's indecision in possession and positioning problematic.
With O’Shea absent, O’Neill has to come up with the right combination at the back, one that is both solid and creative. Too frequently in away games, the ball has been thumped towards the front man without any attempt to build up the play through midfield and get our full backs up the pitch.
We need more possession. Nothing wrong with route one – it produced that goal against Germany – but if it’s the only tactic in town, it can be easily neutralised.
While Keogh is a brave defender, his limitations in possession were glaring in Warsaw. But he should still start, possibly alongside
. Wilson hasn’t played a lot this season and can be too casual, but at least he can pass the ball.
could also partner Keogh but I’m not sure that combination would exude calmness. In light of our limited options in that area, it seems odd that
, who has been excellent for Crystal Palace, was not called up.
As for midfield, the ‘Can Wes play two games together?’ question must be put aside until Monday. He has to play in the first leg.
Apart from against Gibraltar, Hoolahan hasn’t started an away game but I think O’Neill now realises that if we are to create some clear patterns and chances, he has to be selected.
With Brady to the left of McCarthy and, possibly, Jeff Hendrick in the centre, and either James McClean or Aiden McGeady out on the right wing, this would allow Wes play off the front man. It would also give us the clear shape and balance that has often been absent in recent games.
In Shane Long's unfortunate absence, it will probably have to be Daryl Murphy up front. Murphy is honest but lacks ruthlessness. To date. I don't see Robbie starting, and even as a sub last time it took him 33 minutes to get a good touch on the ball. Still, we would settle for just one good touch and a 68th goal.
These type of fixtures are, of course, won and lost on small details and, above all, I hope three key issues have been dealt with in some detail. Namely: defending set pieces; delivery and movement on our attacking set-pieces; and discipline under pressure.
In all these areas, the team failed miserably in Poland.
Shaun Maloney suckered us at Hampden and Grzegorz Krychowiak scored from Poland's first corner of the game last month. We had 11 players back and yet the Pole had time and space to pick his spot. From their other three corners, Krychowiak managed to get two headed efforts on our goal too. Where were the specific, marking instructions? Absent, sadly.
Our corners and free-kicks were abysmal in Warsaw. The delivery from Brady and sometimes Hendrick lacked the whip to trouble an organised defence. But more unsatisfactorily were the seemingly uncoordinated runsof Ireland’s attackers. We frequently saw corners and frees landing in the hands of Lukasz Fabianski. This was frustrating.
Let’s hope some time has been spent on the specifics of defending and attacking set-pieces. And that all the substitutes are clear in their roles if they come on. It all looked a bit too loose and off-the-cuff at times.
As for discipline – O’Shea and Jon Walters miss the first leg and we go into the game with Coleman, Hoolahan, McCarthy, Whelan and Wilson a yellow card away from missing the second. It’s up to the manager to demand discipline – and for the players to deliver.
Our away performances haven’t charmed anyone, only the late goals in Georgia and Germany bringing joy. We’ll need a better performance in Zenica to get a point or more, but it’s possible.
Third place in our group and third place in theirs is what both teams deserved. But the big prize should still be within our grasp come Monday evening.