Plenty for McCarthy to mull over in advance of tricky assignment
Manager has key decisions to make in midfield and in attack for Georgia test
Mick McCarthy: “Georgia were no mugs before they played in it. I’ve watched the games and they dominated possession in most of the games that we’ve played them in.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
We may have moved a little beyond the point where one good win would suddenly restore the feelgood factor to Irish football but things will certainly feel that bit worse if Mick McCarthy’s side slip up against Georgia in this, the first home game of their European Championship campaign.
With the group’s two top seeds facing each other for the first time in Basel tonight too, there is the chance here for Ireland get three more points on the board while the Swiss, Danes or ideally both, drop some.
Shane Duffy missed training yesterday after having picked up a knock to his ankle in Saturday’s win but the 27-year-old defender is expected to be fit to start this evening’s encounter. Everybody else, it seems, is available and so the manager has choices to make in several positions, most obviously up front and on the right side of midfield.
There is the potential for a change in central midfield too and, as a knock on effect from elsewhere, at left back so there is plenty for McCarthy to mull over.
Getting his selection right will clearly be important. The Republic’s manager knows his side will likely need to be significantly improved this evening if they are not to find the going extremely tough against Georgia who will have come to Dublin firmly believing that they can get a result.
While Martin O’Neill’s side were enduring some pretty grim times through 2018, Vladimir Weiss’s were one of those “lesser” European sides thriving on the opportunities offered by the new Nations League. Five wins and a draw earned them top spot in their group and they may very well yet make it to the European Championships through the new competition.
Though they lost their opening qualifier at home to Switzerland on Saturday, they come here more used to winning than ever before, more accustomed to keeping clean sheets and with almost five times as many goals as their hosts to show for outings in the past 12 months.
“If you’ve had a good Nations League then yes, it helps, of course it does because they are competitive games,” acknowledged McCarthy at his pre-match press conference in Abbotstown yesterday.
“Like most others, I was a bit sceptical about the Nations League but I worked on a lot of games and the competitive nature of things certainly improved the games. I think that improved the teams.
“Georgia were no mugs before they played in it. I’ve watched the games and they dominated possession in most of the games that we’ve played them in. So if it’s improved them then they are coming here better than what was already a good side.”
Few matches better highlighted Ireland’s problems in the last qualification campaign than their two encounters with Weiss’s team who they beat once then drew with away. Georgia might well have won both games but in the final qualification group they trailed Seamus Coleman and co by 14 points.
What we saw for sure on each occasion was that if you let Georgia play they will seize the opportunity. They have technically good and creative players who come alive in space. Midfielder Jano Ananidze, in particular, stood out when the two sides last met in Tbilisi and is a likely threat again after having featured at the weekend.
A few of the players who impressed in those games are missing on this occasion but Valeri Qazaishvili and Giorgi Navalovski have both travelled and are likely to have caught the manager’s eye as he watched the game back although the latter, now 32, did not start at the weekend.
In both of the World Cup qualifiers, Ireland enjoyed their best spells when they at least tried to take the game to their opponents. The Swiss had a similar experience at the weekend and only got their two goals in the second half after greatly increasing the pace of their play and switching to a 3-5-2 that allowed them to exert much more pressure in the second half.
McCarthy may not do that but the need to prevent the visitors seizing the initiative this time may mean he resists the temptation to bring in Harry Arter or Glenn Whelan, neither of whom did especially well in Tbilisi 16 months ago.
The central midfield partnership of Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick worked well enough in difficult conditions on Saturday and if there are changes to be made, the priority will be elsewhere.
Matt Doherty certainly seems unlikely to start on the right hand side of midfield again given the manager’s bleak assessment of how Gibraltar went for the Wolves wing back.
Robbie Brady is the obvious replacement but much will depend on whether McCarthy feels the Dubliner has the legs at least to get him significantly into the second half after having played so little football of late.
The question then is whether Doherty, probably Ireland’s best player in England this season, can be left out. Enda Stevens has done nothing wrong at left back but Coleman, it seems safe to say, is not about to be dropped.
Getting to grips with midfield will be key if Ireland are to avoid being turned over but goals will again be an issue if Ireland aspire to more than that and McCarthy must decide whether to replace Sean Maguire or not.
There was a feeling about the camp yesterday that he might drop him in order to get another man into the heart of midfield but that leaves David McGoldrick to play as a lone striker role when his wider-ranging influence was one of the few real positives from the weekend.
If McCarthy had more time, you feel, he would give Maguire some for he looks to be the best of the number nines available right now.
It is a tricky one for the manager, though, and this could be a tough one for his team.
Rep of Ireland: Randolph (Middlesbrough); Coleman (Everton), Duffy (Brighton), Egan (Sheffield United), Doherty (Wolves); Brady (Burnley), Hendrick (Burnley), Hourihane (Aston Villa), McClean (Stoke City); McGoldrick (Sheffield United); Maguire (Preston North End).
Georgia: Loria (Magdeburg); Kakabadze (Luzern), Khockolava (Shaktar Donetsk), Kashia (San Jose Earthquakes), Tabize (Ufa); Qazaishvili (San Jose Earthquakes), Kankava (Tobol), Kvekveskiri (Tobol), Gvilia (Gornik Zabrze), Ananidze (Krylya Sovetov); Kvilitaia (Gent).
Referee: S Gozubuyuk (Netherlands).