World Cup qualification Group D, Georgia v Ireland, Saturday September 2nd (5pm, live on RTE 2, Sky Sports Football)
There is the occasional pothole but the streets of central Tbilisi look a little more prosperous each time Ireland pay a visit. The place seems brighter, especially given the time of year, but the Irish team’s mission in the city remains unchanged: don’t blow it. Like the old line about the first legs of European club games, qualification cannot be won at the Boris Paichadze stadium on Saturday evening, but it just might be lost.
Scotland discovered that the hard way in the last campaign and despite Ireland’s ostensibly strong position right now the stakes are just as high. A defeat this evening would not only dent the team’s chances of finishing first in this qualifying group but, given how close they are at present to being last in the ranking of second placed sides, it could conceivably end up costing them a place in the playoffs too.
Martin O'Neill may not be dwelling too much on that but he is adamant that he is not taking the challenge the game presents, or its importance, at all lightly.
“I don’t think this is a tricky tie,” he insists, “I think that this is a really, genuinely difficult game for us. It’s my job to look back at previous matches, both for ourselves and the opposition, and they played exceptionally well against us in the first half (in Dublin).
“I had a look at that match and even though we spent the first three or four minutes trying to close them down quickly, trying to win the ball and get some momentum going, we seemed to relax then and allowed them into the game.
“If this was in Dublin, under different climatic conditions (it will be around 30 degrees here at kick-off time) we might be able to go and address that. It’s going to be warm out here, though, and I think it’s going to be about how you deal with the ball as much as anything else. We need to try to keep it in these conditions.”
His players have tried that before and struggled to deliver over the course of 90 minutes but it will clearly be as important as ever against a side that can certainly play when they are allowed to. The team lacks the individual talents of previous Georgian ones Ireland have played but O’Neill points to the latter stages of their draw in Wales and the opening stages of their home game against Serbia as evidence of what they can do.
Glass half full
In both games, they not only dominated for periods but had clearcut chances to score more goals. If you are in a glass half full sort of mood, though, you might focus on the fact that they failed to take them or draw encouragement from the softness of the goals they ultimately conceded in the 3-1 defeat.
Few seasoned Irish fans, though, would be optimistic enough to believe that the Georgians will not have an opportunity or two to hurt their visitors over the course of this evening.
“They’re good players,” acknowledged O’Neill, “technically very strong as you would expect Georgian players to be and I just think it’s a tough game for us but that said we’re ready ourselves. We know it’s difficult but we want to try to get something from this game. We knew it was going to be a fight to the death and regardless of the result, that’s the way it seems to be going.”
The manager has some significant decisions to make ahead of the game, most obviously in attack. Jon Walters, who has declared himself fit ahead of what would be his 50th cap, Robbie Brady, James McClean and Shane Long all seem likely to start but Wes Hoolahan, Daryl Murphy and Aiden McGeady will feel they deserve a look in. Even if they are miss out initially, it would be a surprise if at least two from the three didn't feature by the end of the night.
David McGoldrick is still absent after his wife took some time to recover from complications encountered while giving birth. McGeady has made it safely out after his wife also gave birth, and while his chances of being handed a first competitive start in two and half years seem the slimmest, his case is strengthened somewhat by his improved fortunes and strong form at club level.
Scoring here twice last time and providing an assist in an early game against the Georgians might be considered to constitute a bit of a case too but O’Neill played the notion down.
“I think if you were to ask players,” he said, “and I’m really thinking here of club level because they would play against other clubs a little bit more often, they probably would have favourite teams that they do like playing against.
“I think his performance here against Georgia was really excellent and I think that would give extra confidence and a feeling that he can do it again but I’m loath to draw a comparison or parallel to club football where players might think, ‘I played really well against this team for five or six successive seasons,’ because we play international teams so seldom I’m not so sure it would work.
“But Aiden is coming into the game with confidence about himself and a confident Aiden is always a decent sign. It’s not over confidence hopefully, it’s not cockiness, but I think he feels fit which is the most important thing.”
Ireland, he insists, are not cocky or over-confident either. There is always the chance that if they do not play well then their luck will simply run out against a side they have been a little fortunate to beat on one or two previous occasions.
With a central defensive partnership that showed real potential late last year, though, and Harry Arter adding a little more edge in front of it, they should really have enough about them to avoid the pothole that Georgia present. With so many players on bookings, doing it without any being ruled out for Tuesday’s clash with Serbia would be a significant bonus. Either way, though, it would certainly not be a good time to drive straight in.
Georgia: Makaridze (Moreirense); Kakabadze (Esbjerg), Kvirkvelia (Lokomotiv Moscow), Kashia (Vitesse Arnhem), Navalovski (Neftci); Daushvili (Steaua Bucharest), Ananidze (Spartak Moscow); Chanturia (Ural Yekaterinburg) Kaziashvili (San Jose Earthquakes), Merebashvili (Wisla Plock); Kvilitaia (Rapid Vienna).
Republic of Ireland: Randolph (Middlesbrough); Christie (Middlesbrough), Duffy (Brighton), Clark (Newcastle United), Ward (Burnley); Whelan (Aston Villa), Arter (Bournemouth); Walters (Burnley), Brady (Burnley), McClean (West Brom); Long (Southampton).
Referee: Ivan Kruzliak (Slovakia)