He’s been described as many things during this changeable World Cup campaign but ‘Mystical Martin O’Neill’ could be one label Ireland’s manager is content with as he predicted this strange predicament facing his team in next month’s concluding qualifiers.
Even if the first priority of extracting six points from the pair of matches against Moldova and Wales is achieved, there’s no guarantee Ireland won’t be the odd team out when it comes to the eight best runners-up across the nine groups to reach the play-offs.
That was a situation O’Neill feared would unfold all of 14 months ago following the draw in Paris, thereby urging his side to avoid any risky territory by getting to Russia automatically as table-toppers.
“I genuinely think that the winners of our group might be the one with the least amount of points,” the Derryman mused in July 2016.
“Teams will beat each other because I feel our group is going to be exceptionally difficult, exceptionally difficult. If you could give me points against Moldova now, I would take them and head off to the Bahamas.”
Were his team not to beat the group’s bottom team in Dublin on October 6, then O’Neill may as well book that long trip to the Caribbean, albeit his mood would be deflated rather than elated.
Assuming that hurdle is cleared, then Ireland head to Cardiff needing another victory and even then may have to wait another 24 hours until the final three groups are completed to confirm a play-off spot. O’Neill is around long enough to realise his continuation in the job could depend on it.
With just 20% of the campaign remaining, the promising start and the recent dip have combined to leave Ireland with one last stab in Cardiff. Here, we assess the state of play heading into the pivotal conclusion.
Reasons to be cheerful:
Operating without James McCarthy for all but one of the eight qualifiers was manageable but Seamus Coleman’s absence in the last three games wasn’t. McCarthy is due to return from injury next week, along with Jeff Hendrick who missed the recent double-header.
Midfield will be a key battleground in Cardiff, as the Wales pair of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen dominated that area in the duel in March. The presence of Hendrick, possibly McCarthy too, offers something Ireland badly lacked against Georgia and Serbia.
Scott Hogan and Sean Maguire, while both untested at international level, are in the reckoning to boost an ailing strikeforce in October..
Coleman, back training with Everton, is unlikely to make the next gathering but will be available for November, should Ireland get to the play-offs.
Reasons to be fearful:
Wales have the initiative and are unbeaten in Cardiff since 2013. Ireland can pray that Georgia do them a favour by drawing or beating the Welsh on October 6 but pipping Wales may not prevent Ireland being the worst runner-up.
Ireland’s form has been so patchy that is difficult to see a performance within them capable of securing victory on the final day. It will take the spirit of Euro 2016 to be replicated.
Failure to reach the play-off stages cost Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton’s jobs but there seems to be a more relaxed approach in the case of O’Neill and Roy Keane. FAI head honcho John Delaney only recently reiterated that the Ireland job is a results-business and a missed qualification windfall of around €10m will hurt the association.
Should Ireland’s journey end in October, it’s a long 15-month wait until the Euro 2020 qualifiers begin in March 2019. UEFA’s new League of Nations format will take over the international fixture dates in September and October of 2018, when Ireland will likely be placed in the second tier.
There’s almost a year of mere friendly action in the meantime, which may come into O’Neill’s thinking if the expected contract extension is tabled. The Derryman will be 66 then and his ambition of returning to Premier League management for one last challenge would be pressing.
The probable retirement of key players Jon Walters, Wes Hoolahan and John O’Shea – allied to the lack of viable alternatives emerging, as Shay Given noted this week – might also form part of the equation.
Play-offs for the next Euros look like being scrapped, with the places going to League of Nations group victors instead, meaning only a top-two finish will ensure qualification.
A second consecutive third-place finish in this campaign – as now appears inevitable - can hardly be an inspiration to keep O’Neill aboard, in particular someone with a knack for anticipating what’s ahead.
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