Defiant O’Neill insists his side can prove sceptics wrong
Manager looks set to stick with much the same team and tactics for crunch tie
Manager Martin O’Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane with Seamus Coleman at training. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Keeping faith with his players while looking to put the press in its place, Martin O’Neill shrugged off the criticism that has followed Saturday’s draw in Tbilisi, Georgia, suggesting he has seen it all before and that his side can once again prove the sceptics wrong.
With limited scope for changes to personnel and not much hope of those possession stats being transformed against Serbia on Tuesday evening, the spirit may have to be cranked up to 11. O’Neill, in any case, looks set to stick with much the same team and tactics.
The difference, he inevitably hopes, is that his team will be better, much better, than they were at the weekend, with the Northerner evoking memories of recent glories at the Aviva.
Obviously, Germany along with Bosnia and Herzegovina got mentions, but he is only in the job a campaign and a half so the list sort of stopped there. Still, another one of those and nobody will be complaining.
The Serbs appear to slot safely somewhere in between those two in terms of ability, and in this campaign what separates them from O’Neill’s men may yet come to be the fact that when they went to Tbilisi, they matched their hosts pass for pass and converted all three of the chances on target they created over the 90 minutes to win 3-1.
They also had a less stressful weekend than Ireland, beating Moldova 3-0 at home to open that gap at the top of the table, and they arrive here with goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic and midfielder Luka Milivojevic available following suspensions.
Both are set to start, although the return of Stojkovic is the bigger blow from an Irish perspective if the rather modest performance of Predrag Rajkovic in Belgrade last September is anything to go by.
The Irish “spirit” O’Neill cited on Monday as a key weapon in their armoury was certainly on display that night as the team battled their way to a 2-2 draw. The visitors could have won it, the hosts probably should have, but there was little to fondly remember Ireland’s performance for other their relentless determination not to leave that stadium empty-handed.
It will be interesting to see how O’Neill seeks to go one better this time. With Jeff Hendrick ruled out and doubts about Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady, his options look thin enough.
If the two Championship midfielders are not fit to start then perhaps the most obvious candidates available to the manager if he wants to shake things up would be David Meyler, Daryl Murphy or Conor Hourihane.
The former might conceivably be used to allow Harry Arter to play further forward, while the latter could more directly help the manager’s stated goal of getting Ireland back on the front foot.
On the flanks
In either instance Robbie Brady could be relocated to left back, something that might allow the home side to pose more of a threat out on the flanks, although it is worth remembering that his actual defending was often poor when he played there in the last campaign. He had one of his best games for Ireland in the 2-2 draw while playing in a more advanced role.
And the hosts could certainly do with the sort of performance he put in that night somewhere towards the opposition’s half of the pitch if they are to beat a Serbian who know that a win for them could guarantee them at least a top two spot.
On the face of it the involvement of referee Cuneyt Cakir might not be taken as a positive omen for O’Neill and his players; the Turk has tended to be bad news for Ireland with a couple of red cards shown in a string of defeats, the last of which came in France last summer against Belgium.
Oddly, though, the Serbs have never won a game at any level that he has been involved with either, and one can only presume they do not remember him too fondly for the 2-0 defeat in Zagreb and a few years back.
Of more concrete concern just now is the form of Serbia’s strikeforce, with Newcastle’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Southampton’s Dusan Tadic, who plays out towards the right of the frontline in a 3-4-3 formation that puts a considerable emphasis on attacking width, having scored 10 of their country’s 16 goals between them since the start of the campaign.
Mitrovic’s six leave him behind just three players – Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski and Romelu Lukaku – in the European qualifying stages’ top scorers’ list.
This, though, might be taken as just so much more negativity, and O’Neill was scathing on Monday about the sudden wave of pessimism he says he now senses with three matches to go.
“After the Scotland game in November time  it was a month after we’d drawn against Germany in Germany. But we lost that game, and it was doom and gloom.
“We drew with Scotland in June the following year and it was doom and gloom. We were the ones that went to the Euros, though, and performed very, very well. If we’d had one or two more days after we beaten Italy we may well have turned France over. It’s possible, who knows?
“And we’ve gone on now from this to remain unbeaten. We haven’t lost a competitive game despite some poor 25 minutes, half an hours, even 45 minutes as it was the other night.
“We remain unbeaten in the competitive games. Those sorts of things keep you going. It’s what you do on the field that matters, and if we play very, very strongly tomorrow night we can win the game.”
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Randolph (Middlebrough); Christie (Middlesbrough), Duffy (Brighton), Clark (Newcastle United), Ward (Burnley); Whelan (Aston Villa), Arter (Bournemouth); Walters (Burnley), Brady (Burnley), McClean (West Brom); Long (Southampton).
SERBIA: Stojkovic (Partizan); Ivanovic (Zenit St Petersburg), Maksimovic (Napoli), Nastasic (Schalke 04); Rukavina (Villareal), Matic (Manchester United), Milivojevic (Crystal Palace), Kolarov (Roma); Tadic (Southampton), Mitrovic (Newcastle Unitee), Kostic (Hamburg).
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)