At Ireland’s training headquarters in Abbotstown yesterday, Martin O’Neill was doing a passable impression of a boxer absorbing a flurry of punishing blows before bouncing off the ropes and back onto the front foot.
More to the point, he fully expects his team to follow suit in their World Cup qualifier against Wales, even if a lengthening injury list means at least five of the starters from November’s 1-0 victory over Austria, won’t be available at the Aviva on Friday night.
Wes Hoolahan, with a thigh injury, is the latest name from that memorable night in Vienna to be added to the missing list, alongside Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Harry Arter and the suspended Robbie Brady.
On top of all that, James McCarthy is still a major doubt with a hamstring problem, while Daryl Murphy has undergone a scan to determine the seriousness of a calf injury.
At least there was a welcome ray of light to explain the initially alarming sight of skipper Seamus Coleman sitting out the first day of training with a knock.
“It’s precautionary,” said the manager. “If he doesn’t train Tuesday, he’ll train on Wednesday, so he’ll be okay. You know what he’s like.”
O’Neill, however, sounded much less certain about McCarthy’s chances of being involved on Friday.
“James is also doing a scan and if the scan has improved from the previous one then he might think about doing some work,” he said.
“He thinks that he might be able to make it —that would be great if he can. If he doesn’t, well, we’ll just have to do without him.”
And a defiant belief in Ireland being able to ‘do without’ was the overriding message from the manager yesterday.
“It’s the lengthiest list of injuries that I have known since I have come into the job, and unfortunately it’s happened at a really crucial time for us,” O’Neill conceded.
“There is no question that it presents a problem to us. We wouldn’t have the strength in depth that other nations would have but, honestly, it doesn’t matter. We’ll field a side for the game, we’ll get prepared and be ready, absolutely ready, because the game is so important.”
If it does come to having to blood some inexperienced players on Friday, O’Neill reckons the familiarity of the opposition in this international approximation of a derby might be of help.
“Perhaps throwing someone in at the deep end might not be as severe considering they should know the players a wee bit better than maybe going to a game in Belgrade or something like that,” he said.
“The two games we played against Scotland, if you can draw some kind of parallel, were like club affairs. Particularly the game in Glasgow was like that, it was a raw battle. Wales have a pretty decent pedigree, they went close in the Euros, and even though they have had three games at home and one away (with one win and three draws), they will feel that they are well and truly in this group.
“I suppose if, like myself, I was looking across the way and thinking that maybe three or four of their major players were out, it would obviously give you a boost. The irony of it all is that we were having this conversation that Gareth Bale might miss the game (although) I never for one minute thought that, as the injury they were talking about happened in November time so it was a long time to wait around. They are relatively strong and we’re not at our strongest. That said, seriously, we’ll be ready for the game. I promise you, we will be ready for the game and whoever plays, will play strongly.”
And, in particular, the Irish players will need to do just that if they are to prevent the aforementioned Bale from turning the game in the visitors’ favour.
“I just think you need to be on your guard,” O’Neill said. “I think players coming into this game should have an idea now about quality opposition, about the way they are going to turn. Of course, knowing what way they are going to turn, and dealing with it, are two very different things. He is a very fine player, there is no question about that. And he has been a big player for Wales over the last couple of years, really big in terms of qualification and in terms of what he did in the Euros.
“So he will be hard to deal with, but deal with it we will have to do.”
Might O’Neill’s opposite number Chris Coleman be looking at the in-form Aiden McGeady and thinking he could pose similar problems for Wales?
“You would like to think the opposition manager would have respect for some of your players,” he replied. “All of them, if that is the case. It is a big game for us. And we will not be short of effort. We might lack a few other things — as you well know and as you all can see — but, honestly, they will put their heart and soul into the game.”
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