oint top of the table on points with Serbia; before a ball was kicked in World Cup qualifying Group D, we would all have been delighted to think that Ireland would be in this position with four games to play.
Yet, there is already an odd, nagging feeling of ‘what might have been’ for Martin O’Neill’s team going into today’s match in Tbilisi against Georgia. Having racked up three wins and a draw in the first four games, three of which were away from home, Ireland have somewhat squandered that hard-earned advantage in the two home games we played this year, drawing 0-0 with Wales and 1-1 with Austria.
So as healthy as the team’s current position is in Group D, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it could and should be even better. And it all means that there is no room for a slip-up in today’s game in Tbilisi.
Ireland’s performance in the group’s first game, against Serbia in Belgrade, might not have been anything to write home about but, as the Serbians have subsequently progressed to the top of the table on goal difference, the point earned by Daryl Murphy’s first goal for his country in a 2-2 draw this time last year, looks even more valuable in retrospect.
Worryingly, ahead of today’s test, we struggled badly to overcome Georgia in the next game at the Aviva, with Seamus Coleman having to step up to show the way to goal after a particularly abject first half from the home side.
In the next game we also laboured a bit until, in the end, seeing off Moldova with a bit to spare in Chisnau before, on the back of that 3-1 win, Ireland produced their biggest performance and biggest away result in years, thanks to James McClean’s winner against Austria in Vienna.
That should have sent the team bouncing into 2017 full of confidence but, upon resumption of the qualifying campaign in March, our momentum stalled with the first of those two successive home draws at the Aviva. The grim nil-nil with Wales basically descended into a war of attrition, with the additional huge cost – on top of the dropped points – of Seamus Coleman suffering that dreadful broken leg. And, then in June, the 1-1 draw with Austria was another of those games where Ireland went into their shell and really only started playing in the second half when their backs were already to the wall.
So from a position of potential dominance in the group – one where we could have effectively eliminated Wales and Austria from the running – Ireland now find themselves a creditable second on goal difference, yes, but with little margin for error going into the final four games. Automatic qualification as group winners is still a tantalisingly live prospect as is a route to Russia via the play-offs. But, if there are any more setbacks, falling out of the running altogether is also on the cards.
Finely poised, then, is probably the best way to describe Group D, a situation which, going back to the original draw, was always pretty predictable. The good news, I said at the time, was that in the absence of a Germany, a Spain or an Italy, there was no European football superpower in the mix who would have been hot favourites to win the group outright. But the downside was that the resultant combination of pretty evenly-matched sides – Serbia, Austria, Wales and ourselves – was always likely to produce a tight qualification race.
And then there’s Georgia who, as Scotland found out to their cost in the last Euros campaign, are well capable of puncturing a team’s qualification ambitions. As well, It took some individual magic from Aiden McGeady to get us a win the last time we were in Tbilisi and, as I’ve said, in this campaign the Georgians outplayed us in Dublin before that Seamus Coleman goal pulled us through.
Technically accomplished, Georgia can play good, attacking football – but only if you let them. And therein lies the key to how Ireland can get the win they need today. What we can’t afford to do is what we did in Dublin last October: start slowly and sloppily and allow them grow in confidence.
Even though the Georgians did enough to pick up a point in Wales, they still have only three points and no wins to show for their six games in the group so far. The fact that, ultimately, they invariably struggle to get over the line and get a win tells you, above all else, that they are mentally weak.
Ireland can exploit that fragility of character today. If the players eliminate slackness and impose themselves properly on the game from the start, they can really knock the Georgians out of their stride. It’s troubling that we didn’t do that in the Aviva but, hopefully, the lesson has been learned, and we set about the task with the right attitude in Tbilisi.
Overall, we’ve been far too tentative at the start of a number of games in the campaign so far, and unforgivably sloppy too at times. That has to be avoided in Tbilisi. We can’t afford to give Georgia an early foothold in the match and certainly not the confidence-booster of an early goal. We should take the initiative, if we can, and give them the sense right from the first whistle that there’s going to be nothing in this game for them.
In terms of the team Martin O’Neill will put out, Darren Randolph, Cyrus Christie, Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy would all be expected to start. And with Jeff Hendrick missing out, I’d imagine Martin will play Robbie Brady in midfield and Stephen Ward at left-back. While it would be a more attack-minded approach to start with Wes Hoolahan in the Number 10 role, and have Brady at full-back, I think the manager is more likely to use Wes off the bench. But if he does pick Harry Arter, Glenn Whelan and Brady in midfield, it still gives us good options there. Add in James McClean, Jon Walters, if he’s fit, and Shane Long, and that’s a side I’d fancy to get the win.
The Walters call, however, is an important one. If there’s any chance at all that playing today might put him out of the game against the Serbians then I would regard that as a risk not worth taking. Ireland can beat Georgia without Jon Walters but we will definitely need him against Serbia.
Yes, as everyone says, it’s one of those banana skin deals in Tbilisi but if Ireland don’t slip up, they can move on with confidence to what would then be a potentially defining night at the Aviva next Tuesday.