riday’s game against Moldova was a positive platform on a number of levels for tonight against Wales: A really good performance in the first half, a brace for Daryl Murphy for whom goals for Ireland had been in short supply, and a clean bill of health in terms of injuries and suspensions.
But no more than a platform. Moldova are ranked 156th in the world, a side we should be beating with a bit to spare. Tonight in Cardiff is a whole other ball game, a match with World Cup destiny at stake and — especially since Gareth Bale is out of the picture — very little to choose between the two teams. I see it being a very tight, tense, hard-fought game, one which could ultimately come down to which side wants it the most.
It might even be decided by a little bit of luck or, perhaps, some invention over a set-piece, something we’ve lacked in recent times. But we have been on the receiving end. Remember, in the Euro qualifiers, that we lost to Scotland in Parkhead when we went to sleep at a corner and they worked a short one to really good effect. I think tonight in Cardiff is going to be a similar game to that one, and if we’re to win we’ll definitely have to play much better than we did in Glasgow.
One of the very encouraging things from Friday, even before a ball was kicked, was to hear Martin O’Neill say that it would be important to get the ball to Wes Hoolahan because he can make us play. Wesley duly delivered, as he always does, which means you have to question yet again why the manager has been reluctant to show consistent faith and confidence in our most creative player.
The stats confirm that when Hoolahan plays we get more points than when he doesn’t. Obviously, you have to take into equation his age and the fact that sometimes successive games come quickly in international football, and no doubt O’Neill would feel he has to manage the player’s game-time in that respect.
But I really believe that cautious approach has been a mistake, to the extent that if we do miss out on Russia — especially considering the great position we were in at the end of 2016 — I would regard the manager’s failure to make the most of Hoolahan’s availability as a key reason why the team regressed in 2017.
It goes without saying that I think Wes should start against Wales tonight, though we’ll have to wait to see if O’Neill is of a similar mind. But with a couple of our first picks available again, there are bound to be changes from the side which performed impressively against Moldova.
James McClean, suspended on Friday, will probably replace Callum O’Dowda, despite what I thought was a very encouraging performance by such an inexperienced player on his competitive debut at the Aviva. The youngster impressed everyone with his composure, pace, and footballing brain, and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing more of him in the future.
But that future is not tonight. So McClean will come in for him and Robbie Brady will also return to the side — possibly at the expense of one of the two strikers, Daryl Murphy and Shane Long. If it’s Murphy, you’re leaving out a player who is in good goal-scoring form for club and now country. Omit Long and, even though he is in a bad place when it comes to putting the ball in the net, you’re going to miss that combination of pace, power, and determination to challenge for every ball which makes him such a handful for any defence to have to cope with.
The really brave call by O’Neill, then, would be to put Brady in at left-back, and play Jeff Hendrick, David Meyler, and James McClean with Hoolahan in behind two strikers. I don’t mean to be critical of Stephen Ward who has confounded a lot of the sceptics to become a very good servant for Ireland. It’s just that, in the context of tonight’s all or nothing game, I feel our chances of success would be better served by playing Brady in that position.
I would be pleasantly surprised if O’Neill takes the same view. Going on past experience, I think he’ll err on the side of caution, at least to begin with, by opting for another body in midfield at the expense of a striker.
Another criticism of the manager is that, after the 1-0 win in Austria, he was slow to recognise that Meyler deserved to be in the team from the start and not as an option off the bench. Meyler’s selection as captain last Friday was a welcome but belated acknowledgement of the player’s growing importance to the Irish cause.
urning to our opponents, although Wales are without their best player, Ireland will still have to be alert to the threat of Aaron Ramsey in that No. 10 role. The Welsh usually employ one striker but, against us, Chris Coleman might go from the start with Sam Vokes and Hal Robson-Kanu. Either way, we’ll have to be wary of Ramsey in behind because he drifts purposefully into the box, he’s hard to mark and he’s a good finisher.
Tonight will be a big test for Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark. Tension will be high in the Cardiff City Stadium and we’ve seen both be a little bit rash on occasions in the past. McClean too. As much as anything else, this game is going to be a question of temperament. The Irish will have to show determination, of course, but we don’t want to see players losing their heads, making rash challenges, and going for balls they can’t win. And, as a possible consequence of either of those, we certainly don’t want to be going down to 10 men.
In the last 30 minutes of the game against Serbia in Dublin, it was clear that a kind of anxiety took hold of the players, with the result that our crossing was hasty and shots were being fired from bad angles and near impossible distances. Composure went out the window.
Right up to kick-off tonight, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane should be emphasising that crucial message to the players. This is a game for brave hearts, yes, but also for cool heads.