Georgia’s win against Scotland on Friday was a godsend for Ireland.
Martin O’Neill can’t deny that and nor can he blame people for getting a bit carried away with the implications. If Scotland had got a result in Tbilisi, then Ireland were destined to have a really disastrous campaign. But, suddenly, the chance of European Championship qualification can be rescued.
In fact, we’re now in a great position to get that third place, although an automatic top two spot is surely beyond us. Georgia beating Scotland has definitely swung things our way but, to understand how we have arrived where we are now, you also have to look back and note the significance of those late goals for us, away to Georgia and Germany, by Aiden McGeady and John O’Shea.
Yet the uncomfortable truth remains that we really shouldn’t be in this position.
Although I always felt the results were more impressive than the performances, we did get off to a great start in the group with seven points from the first nine, the last of them away to the world champions. But since then – and leaving aside the Gibraltar games which only matter in terms of points – our performances have been so poor that, despite our third place position now, you would hardly feel full of confidence in the team going into tonight’s game against the second from bottom side.
I was hoping Martin O’Neill would play the same team in Faro he planned to put out tonight. With the result on Friday never in doubt, it would have been an ideal opportunity to practice set-pieces, positional play, runs from midfield and the like. And maybe, with the exception of Seamus Coleman coming back in, that’s what he will do. But you never know with Martin; his selections are almost impossible to second-guess.
When you look back on this campaign to those limited periods when we have played well in games, the ones that stand out would be the first half against Scotland and the second half against Poland. And the common denominator in those is that we were aggressive, on the front foot, pressed high and, to use that familiar phrase, put the opposition under pressure – a bit like Irish teams of old.
Martin is going to have to call for something similar again tonight and, to that end, I’d like to see an aggressive player like James McClean on the pitch. McClean, I felt at the time, helped change the game when he came on against the Poles but, having said that, he was then much less effective when introduced against the Scots.
And that’s the trouble with the attacking players at O’Neill’s disposal – whether it’s McClean, Aiden McGeady, Shane Long or Robbie Keane, you just don’t know if they’re going to deliver. A lot of the time we’re reduced to hoping that the players selected will deliver rather than feeling any great confidence in their ability to put in a performance.
I feel for Martin for that reason, and it probably explains why he’s felt the need to chop and change so much. The players simply haven’t given him the evidence he requires to stick with them. Which is perhaps why he also looks at the opposition more and tends towards what he considers horses for courses in his sometimes surprising selections.
For example, I don’t think anyone saw Daryl Murphy coming in as a starter against Scotland, ahead of both Keane and Long, but with the Ipswich striker out injured, I presume it will be more of a straight forward choice between the other two to start up front tonight. And I suspect Martin will go with Robbie even though I thought that, despite scoring his two goals, he didn’t look sharp against Gibraltar. So maybe, just maybe, he’ll go with Long for his pace and power instead. And I happen to think that would be the right call. These Georgian defenders are big lads, fast and fit, and I can’t see Robbie getting much change from the start against them.
So I’d start with Long and I’d also put Jon Walters up there with him. And hopefully from there we can get Wes Hoolahan into the game because he is the kind of intricate player who, if we’re struggling to get in behind them, can break through what will be a stubborn Georgian defence with one of those little six-yard, defence-splitting pass.
Other than that, I would like to see an improvement in our set-pieces which have been disappointing throughout this campaign. I’m sure the work has been done on the training pitch but they really need to carry it through to the games and look to get a goal or two from corners or free-kicks.
The other part of the group equation tonight that most immediately effects our qualification chances is Scotland-Germany at Hampden Park. And despite the seriousness of their setback in Tbilisi, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Scots getting something from the game, not only because they’ve had a few good results already but because this could effectively be their last throw of the dice. They will be thinking that we will beat Georgia here and so will feel they really have to get at least a point out of their home game against the world champions.
While Scotland’s defeat in Tbilisi was undoubtedly a huge boost for us, the fact that the Georgians got their victory under a new manager means we will have to be wary of them at the Aviva.
They’ll come here with a lot to play for, if not in terms of qualifying, then in the sense that they must now be thinking they’ve turned a corner and are on the road to better results.
I watched that Scotland game, and was impressed by how well Georgia defended and the general aggression and attitude with which they played. They can be difficult opponents and, if Ireland are to make the most of Friday’s reprieve, will have to be treated as such tonight.
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