Second string will find it tough going against a decent USA side

Doubts about the vital James McCarthy’s commitment to the cause are unwarranted

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill: still looking to impose a discernible  system on the side. Photo: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill: still looking to impose a discernible system on the side. Photo: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

Tonight’s game is overshadowed by the lingering disappointment of Friday’s loss in Scotland. Poland’s very comfortable win in Georgia, which put them top of the table with 10 points, exacerbates our difficulties, but I believe qualification for France will come down to the number of points we require – and can achieve – from the last two group matches at home to Germany and away to Poland.

If we can keep the deficit down to four points or less then it will be possible, but for that to happen we would need to take at least four points from our next two games against Poland and Scotland at home. Is it doable? Yes. A certainty? No.

Martin O’Neill will be still smarting from Friday’s result. I agreed with his selection on the night. His choices were limited in the central midfield positions due to the absence of Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and Wes Hoolahan. Shane Long ahead of Robbie Keane was the right call. Robbie’s ineffectiveness in Georgia and Germany justified his exclusion.

The combination of Long and Jon Walters through the middle suggested O’Neill was expecting a British-league type international, with a flavour of the old Home Championship derbies added to the mix. He was right. But his team suffered from the lack of impact of our central midfield pairing of Jeff Hendrick and Darron Gibson, in contrast to that of their direct opponents Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew. Walters did his best to provide support to Long and help the ouplayed midfield, but he lacks a true midfielder’s ball-playing abilities and positional sense.

More composure

Richard Keogh

Looking back on O’Neill’s selections over what has been a difficult year, the only wins over Oman, Georgia and Gibraltar, perhaps the team’s best performance was at Craven Cottage in the 0-0 with Italy. In that game, Long played excellently as the lone striker, but critically, Hendrick and David Meyler in central midfield were supplemented by the clever Wes Hoolahan. His ability to find space, possession and the right pass gave us control.

O’Neill, surprisingly, left Hoolahan out of the first two away games in the group, but the four performances to date may change his mind for future games.

Friday’s play was too predictable and easily dealt with by the Scots. A return to a better balanced plan of passing football and aggressive front-running and competitiveness is vital if we’re going to get the points we need. We have the players with the ability to control possession and O’Neill should trust them.

In the last two games, McCarthy has been absent and his return is crucial to our ability to play through our midfielders. It’s a pity there is a controversy over his absence in Germany and Scotland. Doubts about his commitment don’t stand up.

The easy decision would have been for him to play for Scotland but he was loyal to us after his introduction to the underage teams. The fact that he played in nine of the last 10 World Cup qualifiers suggests a strong desire to play regularly for Ireland.

Roy Keane and O’Neill will be well aware that the psychological pressure put on players by their real owners, the club, not to play international football, is immense. When there is a possibility of worsening a slight injury, that pressure is intensified.

In this situation, the personal relationship and lines of communication between club and country managers are crucial for dealing with potential problems. Also the regular contact and the respect built up between both parties’ medical staff is vital. Of course, the players themselves need to be strong and forthright to ensure their release if they feel they may be fit enough to play. But that is easier said than done. The interpretation of scans is a very delicate science and I can understand the reticence about pushing a player in to playing against his own hunch. The easiest way to foul up a relationship with a club is to send back a player with an aggravated injury.

The FAI’s relationship with Everton must be spot on given McCarthy, Séamus Coleman, Gibson and Aiden McGeady’s value to the squad. It’s a tough one for international managers, but it is the reality of the modern moneybags game.

Tonight rounds off what has been a difficult year for O’Neill’s remodelling process. The results have not been great with four defeats in 10 games. Along the way, he has had to deal with continued distractions surrounding Roy.

And those injudicious comments about Jack Grealish have hardly helped the manager in his pursuit of the gifted Aston Villa player.

I expect few, if any, of Friday’s starters to play much tonight. Our second string will find it tough against a USA team that emerged with Germany from the toughest and most entertaining of World Cup groups. As usual, they will be organised, enthusiastic and with a clear pattern of play. Although they always use a back four they can change the shape and system of the rest of the team when necessary. These are all assets O’Neill is striving for with the Irish squad.

I hope tonight’s game helps him get there. We need it to, March ain’t so far away.

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