O’Neill: Ireland must be at their best to beat ‘class act’ Serbia
Manager calls for bigger performance as pressure mounts on side after Georgia draw
Republic of Ireland coach Martin O’Neill says his side will have to improve in order to beat Serbia. Photograph: Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA
Those who played in Tbilisi might be grateful for the opportunity to make amends but Martin O’Neill suggests there could be changes to Ireland’s starting line-up for the game against Serbia after his side’s chances of making it Russia next summer took a bit of a battering on Saturday night.
Ireland retain second place in Group D but lost ground to both the Serbs and Welsh on a night when they failed to get to grips with Georgia in Tbilisi and now need to win a group game for the first time this year if they are to avoid the likelihood of slipping back to third with just two games remaining.
The manager acknowledged afterwards that his side had played poorly against a side that was better on the night but insisted that Ireland are capable of producing the sort of improvement required to beat the Serbs and stay in contention for the group’s sole automatic qualifying spot.
“We will have to do better,” he said, “give them less room to play than we did with the Georgians. We will have to be at our very best if we are going to beat them but we can do that.
“I think the players will be well aware of it themselves that we did not play well enough. At some stage you have to get closer to players; that’s just the name of the game. But we didn’t do that, we allowed them to dictate matters and when we did have the ball, we didn’t deal well enough with it.
“In the second half, we started getting a bit closer to them; we started to create a few chances. The game stretched and it was end to end for about 10 or 15 minutes towards the end and in that time we had two or three chances to score. So from that viewpoint, that was encouraging but definitely, in terms of the first-half performance, we have to address that and do a lot better because Serbia are a class act.”
O’Neill repeatedly came back in his post-match comments to the fact that Ireland had clear-cut chances to get a second goal and win the game but the Georgians, who were generally the better side, might well have scored another too.
Their manager, Vladimir Weiss, expressed disappointment that his side had not won the game but said the home side had to be proud too of having gone so close against a team largely composed of players with Premier League clubs. Several of his own players, he said in a line that echoed a regular O’Neill complaint, had tired towards the end because they are not playing regularly at their clubs.
Asked about the Irish goal – a Shane Duffy header after a fourth-minute free had been lofted long into the box by Cyrus Christie in which Ciaran Clark appeared to foul Giorgi Makaridze as he came for the high ball, Weiss focused on the role of his goalkeeper rather than that of the Slovakian referee who failed to spot the infringement.
“I don’t blame the referee,” he said. “It was an individual mistake by the goalkeeper; he should not have come that far out. The keepers have practised for those sorts of situations in training numerous times and he should have known that it was not his job to come so far out of his six-yard box.”
His opposite number, meanwhile, accepted that his players “really should do better at international level. It’s a step up,” he claimed, “and you are playing against sides who are technically decent”. Impressive as they were, though, it is hard to see how Georgia could be regarded as a step up on the opponents that most of these Irish players routinely find themselves facing in the English top flight.
Serbia, as it happens, might be a little closer to it and while David McGoldrick should and Jeff Hendrick could be available, O’Neill must decide on whether to embark on the sort of overhaul that paid off for him so handsomely at the European Championships ahead of the team’s final group game against Italy.
On that occasion, there were four changes to the line-up with Richard Keogh, Daryl Murphy, James McClean and Duffy all coming into an Irish side that was unrecognisable to the one beaten so comprehensively by Belgium a few days earlier.
If Ireland fail to win on Tuesday, O’Neill seemed to tacitly agree, the team’s lingering hopes of finishing first in the group will be all but over but his concerns have been compounded by Wales’ 1-0 victory over Austria which moves Chris Coleman’s side to within two points of Ireland in the table.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, could finalise their place in the play-offs in Belfast Monday evening if they can just avoid defeat against the Czech Republic who must win to keep their own chances of catching Michael O’Neill’s side alive.
Two goals from Josh Magennis and a penalty from skipper Steven David, all in the space of seven minutes towards, gave the Irish a 3-0 win in San Marino while the Czechs were beaten at home by Germany who can guarantee top spot and automatic qualification by beating Norway if Northern Ireland fail to win.
“If we can take care of business on Monday night,” said the manager in the wake of Friday’s win, “and have a play-off to look forward to, then it’s something for us to relish. In essence, if we can do that, our World Cup starts in November.”