James McClean set to fill in up front as injuries increase

Martin O’Neill tips West Brom player for role with Anthony Pilkington also a possibility

It will not have much to do with any belated attempt to emulate Spain or Barcelona, but the Republic of Ireland may well find themselves playing with a false number nine in the latest of their pre-tournament warm-up games at the Aviva, where Slovakia this time provide the opposition.

Shane Long looks likely to feature again for some portion of the game, despite having played all but six minutes of Friday's win over Switzerland. But such is the lack of striking alternatives that some improvisation will be required after that. While the then world champions made a stylish virtue of playing without a recognised frontman, Ireland's version is set to involve a midfielder simply passing himself off as one.

Stand-in role

Manager Martin O’Neill tipped James McClean for the stand-in role at his pre-match conference yesterday, saying he had seen the West Brom wide man play up there during his time with Wigan and that he had done “exceptionally well”.

Anthony Pilkington may get a crack at it too, for a bit, as the 27-year-old bids to bolster his seemingly slender chances of securing a place on the plane to France.


Ireland go into the game having suffered just one defeat in 11 and kept six clean sheets in their last nine; a firm foundation for a side whose initial aim at this summer’s European Championship is not to get dumped unceremoniously out after the first round again.

Beyond that, however, O’Neill is clear about wanting to see further improvement from the side in terms of the way his players play on the ball, with retaining possession clearly seen as a department in which there is substantial room for improvement.

“We’d obviously look to score a few more goals if we can and I think that in possession we could be a little more confident with ourselves in doing that. There was a little spell in the second half against Germany when I thought that we did exceptionally well, culminating in the goal.

“So these games, while we still want to win them and they’re important with regard to co-efficients and all of that, there’s a bit of trialling about them all too. It is nice to go into games having won rather than lost, and if we can get through this game and go into the tournament, or move that bit closer to it, on a bit of a high, then that will be good. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do; I genuinely feel that.

“We could do that little bit better in terms of confidence on the ball. The players are capable of doing it, it’s a question of self belief. But I think things will be totally different out there [in France], with the games in quick succession. I think it will present a few different problems which we will have to try to overcome.”

Useful opponents

The Slovaks, he said, will be useful opponents, primarily, he says, because they have qualified for the finals and so their players, too, will be highly motivated both individually and collectively.

They come here off the back of a somewhat disappointing scoreless draw with Latvia at the weekend, but they showed over the course of their qualifying campaign that they have a bit about them, primarily in the wins over Spain at home and Ukraine away.

Though they have proud tradition in the game, the current squad is short on players of stand-out quality. But skipper Martin Skrtel will certainly be well known in these parts from Liverpool, and vice-captain Martin Hamsik has been a consistently strong performer for his country on the international stage.

The Napoli midfielder is only 28, but he has been around long enough to have featured in the 2-2 draw between these sides in September 2007, when he forced Shay Given into a good save at one point, and he was, rather more recently, the side’s leading goalscorer with five on the way to the finals.

Given, of course, is not around for this latest meeting, but O'Neill acknowledged the 39-year-old might yet benefit from an injury to Jack Butland over the weekend that might afford the Irishman some first-team opportunities at Stoke City when he is fully fit again.

“Of course, absolutely,” said the manager. “That’s unfortunate for the young goalkeeper at Stoke and while I’m not picking the team, if it does give Shay an opportunity to play regularly between now and end of season, then that would give him a really good chance.”

As Given is not yet fully fit, Denmark's Jakob Hugaard is likely to step in this weekend against Swansea.

O'Neill suggested Wes Hoolahn may well start, while Eunan O'Kane and Jonny Hayes are among those in contention for further run outs. But he was tight lipped about his starting line up and reacted to a query as to whether Ciaran Clark's presence at the press conference might be taken as an indication that he is to start, by saying: "No, he is likely not to start, actually. I just brought him along because I like him."

The FAI has confirmed Belarus will provide the opposition for the Republic of Ireland’s final warm-up game for the European Championships at Turner’s Cross on May 31st.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (possible): Elliot (Newcastle United); Christie (Derby County), O'Shea (Sunderland), Keogh (Derby County), Ward (Burnley); Whelan (Stoke City), O'Kane (Bournmouth); Brady (Norwich City), Hoolahan (Norwich City), McClean (West Brom); Long (Southampton).

SLOVAKIA: Kozacik (Viktoria Plzen); Pekarik (Hertha Berlin), Skrtel (Liverpool), Salata (Slovan Bratislava), Svento (Cologne); Sabo (PAOK), Gregus (Baumit Jablonec); Sestak (Ferencvaros), Hamsik (Napoli), Stoch (Bursaspor); Vittek (Slovan Bratislava).

Referee: Svein-Erik Edvartson (Norway).

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times