Stakes high as Republic of Ireland take on Wales
Gareth Bale the major threat to Martin O’Neill’s hopes of automatic qualification
Jeff Hendrick during Republic of Ireland squad training at the FAI National Training Centre, Abbotstown, Dublin on Thursday. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho.
WORLD CUP QUALIFIER: Group D, Republic of Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium, Friday, 7:45 (Live on RTÉ 2, Sky Sports 1)
A campaign in which Ireland have surpassed expectations so far might yet come be defined by this highly anticipated game against Wales.
Win, and Martin O’Neill’s men could potentially push on to secure automatic qualification, safe in the knowledge that it would surely take a collapse of substantial proportions to deprive them of at least a top-two finish.
Lose, though, and Chris Coleman’s side will take momentum into the decisive phase of this group with the Euro2016 semi-finalists likely to prove hard to halt again when Ireland head to Cardiff for the final round of games.
The stakes are, perhaps, that little bit higher for the visitors who really cannot afford to lose if they hope to win the group but the contest has the feel of a handicap about it given the absence of so many potentially influential figures for the locals, most obviously the team’s most creative attacking player, Wes Hoolahan, and its set-piece specialist, Robbie Brady.
The Welsh, we all know, travel with a jack of all those trades and more although O’Neill was, understandably enough, reluctant to get drawn into any detailed debate on the Gareth Bale’s strengths or any potential weaknesses in Ireland’s plan to deal with him.
Still, the Real Madrid man is bound to have taken up a fair bit of the manager’s planning in recent months.
The 27-year-old was outstanding in a couple of Wales’ games at Euro 2016 and features fairly centrally in all that has been good about them since even if the results have not been going quite the way that might have been expected.
The former Tottenham star has the potential to be dangerous almost anywhere – and Stephen Ward looks set for an especially tough night given the regularity with which he and his team-mates tend to attack down their right flank – but the hosts will certainly need to prevent him cranking up through the gears after dropping back to pick up the ball in deep positions.
The more immediate concern, though, will be in and around the area with the one time left back having scored or directly set up all but two of the eight goals Wales have managed since the start of the campaign.
Conceding frees within his sort of range will be asking for trouble while he can, quite obviously, shoot rather effectively from play. And corners are a particular concern with this Welsh side too given both Bale’s ability in the air and Joe Allen’s ruthless way with a ball cleared poorly to the edge of the area.
He and Aaron Ramsey both made Uefa’s team of the tournament last summer when Bale missed out and it is probably no coincidence that when the team drew 1-1 at home with Georgia in October the hosts were without the Arsenal star from the outset while Allen had gone off injured by the time the visitors got on top and almost, in the closing stages, grabbed themselves a winner.
O’Neill, indeed, will have highlighted to his players that tendency the Welsh have to concede with just about every one of the four goals put past Wayne Hennessey during their four qualifiers to date so far having looked pretty preventable.
Late on against the Georgians, Ashley Williams and co were entirely at sea and the Irish players will feel that however much pressure they themselves come under, there will be the potential to score a goal or two themselves.
It might seem more obvious where the goals might come from if Brady and/or Hoolahan were on hand but the need for a bit attacking ingenuity should mean Aiden McGeady will see a bit of action, from the start perhaps if James McCarthy were to miss out.
The presence, instead, of David Meyler at the outset would clearly say something about O’Neill’s true intentions.
For all the injury setbacks and other concerns, though, McCarthy’s inclusion would mean that O’Neill could well come within one man – Brady – of naming the same side that started against Serbia.
That, in itself, might suggest things are not so bad at all but the Derry man will surely be looking for a much better Irish performance here than the one in Belgrade where neither side actually did much to impress during what was a chaotic contest.
The point secured that night made it seem like a victory, though, and it just might be that Wales might view a draw here this evening as a decent return given the likely cost going for victory but coming up short.
That just might help to set the tone of a game which O’Neill insists Ireland will set out to win.
It is traditional to point out that this stage that to achieve the result, Ireland will surely have to retain the ball a little bit better than we are used to seeing but having won in Austria with scarcely 40 per cent of possession, perhaps we should stop worrying.
To be fair, it seems unlikely that things will improve on that score in the circumstances anyway and the hint of derby about it all may mean it matters a little less this time.
Confidence is, as Séamus Coleman confirmed yesterday, high; expectation, given the steady stream of bad news on the injury front, less so perhaps. But anything other than a defeat and Ireland will push on towards the visit of Austria in June with momentum of their own.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Randolph (West Ham); Coleman (Everton), O’Shea (Sunderland), Keogh (Derby County), Ward (Burnley); McCarthy (Everton), Whelan (Stoke City); Hendrick (Burnley), Walters (Stoke City) McClean (West Brom); Long (Southampton).
WALES: Hennessey (Crystal Palace); Chester (Aston Villa), Williams (Everton), Davies (Tottenham Hotspur); Gunter (Reading), Ledley (Crystal Palace), Allen (Stoke City), Taylor (Aston Villa); Ramsey (Arsenal), Bale (Real Madrid); Robson-Kanu (West Brom).
Referee: N Rizzoli (Italy).