No room for a slip-up if Ireland are to build upon steady start
O’Neill ponders his midfield options as he looks to plot a way past sixth seeds Georgia
James McCarthy: could make a surprise return from injury for the Republic of Ireland against Georgia. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
But for Martin O’Neill and his players, the stakes are high and failure to get the better of tonight’s visitors could well prove costly.
Scotland, certainly, will take some time to forget the defeat in Tbilisi that cost them so dearly in the last campaign.
And Wales, almost unbelievably it seems now, lost home and away to the Georgians during their bid to qualify for Euro’96.
In a group where the potential for points to be dropped against the group’s other three qualification contenders is so great, slipping up against the weakest seeds, at home, would look all the more unforgivable.
If struggling to keep the ball really is ingrained in the Irish side’s DNA then so too, it often seems, is making hard work of beating ostensibly poor sides.
But of the 20 teams in world football that the Republic of Ireland enjoys a 100 per cent record against, none has been beaten more often (seven times) than tonight’s opponents and this is clearly not the time to let the guests leave such an exclusive club.
Sixth seedsO’Neill, like Roy Keane, has been assiduously respectful towards Vladimir Weiss and his team but his assertion at his pre-match press conference that they are the best of the qualifying tournament’s sixth seeds does not in itself do much to inspire much fear.
Of much more concern, is the quality of the Georgian performance against Austria last month when they came close to battling their way back after conceding two first-half headed goals.
The hosts looked good going forward in the second half and the Austrians ended up having to hang on. But Weiss will do well to inspire an improvement now after that night ultimately ended in disappointment.
It does not, in the circumstances, seem disrespectful to the visitors to suggest that the winning or losing of the game really should depend on the quality of the home team’s performance.
If things do not go well from the outset, O’Neill’s ability to engineer an improvement may be hampered by his limited options on the bench.
But for all the injuries he has had to deal with, he is in a position to field the same starting line up as in Serbia with just one change, Jon Walters for Daryl Murphy, certain to be required from the win over Italy in Lille four months ago; and that, to be fair, is one he would might have been expected to make anyway.
James McCarthy could well miss out too but the manager has continued to suggest that he is remains in the frame for selection, something that would ensure there is a significant decision or two to be made with regard to his midfield.
If the Everton midfielder starts, O’Neill will not be able to accommodate Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean as Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady, Shane Long and Walters all look to be certainties to start. A fair bit will come down to the shape of a side that will be set up to win.
Should McCarthy be left out, as appeared likely a few days ago, Whelan is sure to retain his place with McClean, it seems, likely to complete the side on the left despite the manager’s positive assessment yesterday of Hoolahan’s ability to impact upon games just like this one.
Both have, unlike Ireland’s first choice strikers, scored in competitive outings this season – albeit three between them – and the manager has acknowledged the need for the team’s midfield to generate a few more goals now that the man the team generally turned to on occasions like this, Robbie Keane, has finally headed west.
“If you look at any reasonably successful team, you will find a goalscoring midfielder amongst them and the encouragement is there after Jeff Hendrick scoring his first international goal and then going on and scoring for Burnley too; that and the fact that he is playing in the biggest league of all should give him a great boost.
“I just want him to continue on now in the same vein,” said O’Neill.
He will look for an improvement, he says, in terms of the way his players handle possession with the performance against Italy surely having the potential to serve as some sort of blueprint.
But with several of the squad having played a fair bit more football over the last few weeks, O’Neill believes the Irish are, at least, in better shape now than they were a month ago for the challenge this and the game in Moldova on Sunday present.
Significant boostThat game too, as McClean and others have acknowledged this week, needs to be won and surely can be if Ireland play well.
Rather it is the likes of the game in Vienna between Austria and Wales that should play a greater part in shaping this particular qualification race with the points dropped should two of the top seeds draw potentially handing O’Neill and his players a significant boost.
“Yeah, I must admit I do look at those games and think about that,” he says before joking that, “then halfway through the tournament I look back and regret that I was cheering on a draw.
“But if you’re asking me at this minute would I be happy if Wales and Austria drew then the answer is ‘yes’ because for both of them it would be two points dropped,” he added.
Both, though, would be in a better position to pick themselves up from the setback than Ireland in the event that points are dropped this evening.
The Georgians will test Ireland but after having beaten the Bosnians and Italians since the world champions came here and lost, it would be quite a surprise if Ireland actually failed to clear this early hurdle.