Stephen Quinn is a ‘definite option’ to replace James McCarthy or Glenn Whelan in Ireland’s midfield tonight, writes Liam Brady.
First, the good news: Italy have already topped the group which means that, essentially, they’ve got nothing to play for against Ireland in Lille tonight.
Yes, the players Antonio Conte will bring in for the match will want to prove themselves to the manager but, let’s be under no illusion, this Italian team is no great shakes as an attacking force.
Certainly, the forward players they’ve got are nothing like as potent as the guys Ireland had to contend with when we played Belgium on Saturday. And, again, it’s worth stressing that the Italian side which did actually beat the Belgians 2-0 in the opening game won’t be the same one that’s going to play us.
The talk is that there could be as many as nine changes to the their team and, certainly, I’d be very surprised if any of the Juventus Four — Buffon, Chiellini, Bonucci , and Barzagli — will be on the pitch tonight. Those players are so important to Conte that he will want to rest most, if not all of them, before the knockout stage. For the Italians, tonight’s game will be all about some match practice for the players who’ve haven’t featured and rest and recovery for the guys who’ve already played in two games.
Taking all that into account, I can’t for the life of me see how Italy are going to be going full throttle against Ireland — and that means it’s a great opportunity for us to benefit from the performance and point in the first game against Sweden by going and doing the business in Lille.
However, the hard lessons of the defeat to Belgium will have to be learned if we are to make the most of our final chance.
First of all, in terms of team selection, I believe that Ciaran Clark has to be replaced and that Robbie Brady needs to revert to left-back. I pointed out here the other day that, being more comfortable on the ball than Stephen Ward, Brady had been a reliable outlet for us from that starting position against the Swedes — and that’s something which will be very useful to have again this evening.
In midfield, Glenn Whelan looked very jaded on Saturday while James McCarthy is completely out of sorts. I’d be surprised if both of them start though, to be fair to Martin O’Neill, he doesn’t have a lot of alternative options in the squad when it comes to the crucial midfield area. I do recognise that we are limited in that regard.
But Stephen Quinn is one definite option. He has always stood up to the responsibility of playing and never let Ireland down. Quinn might be limited in certain ways but he’ll definitely rise to a challenge, so I think he should come in tonight either for Whelan or McCarthy.
I see that there has been some speculation that Wes Hoolahan and Shane Long might also pay the price for the defeat against Belgium. But Wes Hoolahan, like Long, depends on service — and service was absolutely non-existent in Bordeaux.
I’ve said it before: if you’re going to play Hoolahan in that forward role, it’s up to McCarthy and Whelan to play those progressive passes that get him on the ball. And they simply didn’t do that against the Belgians.
So, for me, Hoolahan and Long would both be totally exonerated for that defeat, and I’d be disappointed if Martin made them scapegoats. Okay, he might turn around and say that Wes at 34 hasn’t got three consecutive games in a short space of time in him — and, to be fair, the manager would have all the first-hand knowledge of that from watching him in training. Actually, it’s been said to me that Hoolahan ran more than any other Irish player on Saturday — and that’s mainly because he had to repeatedly chase after a ball that was flying up to Long. But if Wes is tired, he’s tired, and only Martin can be the judge of that.
As for Shane Long, he’s worked tirelessly in the two games to little or no avail. And I’d feel sorry for him if he was to lose his place.
Seamus Coleman, as an attacking threat from full-back, is another Irish player who isn’t helped when we’re just hitting long balls. He thrives on the play being built up in midfield so he arrives on the scene at just the right time. But if there’s no possession play in the middle of the park he doesn’t know whether to stay or go, and that’s the reason why, in my opinion, he’s having a poor tournament.
In fact, on Saturday, I thought he was trying too hard to get up the pitch and it was a bit unfair on him because, through our inability to get on the ball, there were none of the required passes coming to him from Hoolahan or McCarthy.
In these finals, we’ve only really seen him at his best when he worked some magic to set up Hoolahan for the goal against Sweden. That was the moment you thought, yes, this is the Coleman we know from Everton and from some previous games from Ireland.
In terms of other changes, I think there’s certainly a case for bringing in James McClean. If you’re going to get the best out of this Irish team in a playing sense, then I think you have to put Brady at left-back and play McClean in front of him at outside left. Tonight, McClean’s combination of energy, will, and determination might be the very thing to unsettle an inexperienced Italian side.
What we can’t afford this evening is another reversion to the long ball game we played for most of the first half against Belgium. This is where you hope the managerial team do their business now, by telling the players that that stuff is a waste of time — especially if, as now seems certain to be the case, Jon Walters isn’t up there to try and win those balls.
O’Neill and Keane must get a grip of these players if they’re going to get what they want from them tonight. That’s the job of the management team.
But since this is the last throw of the dice, the players have to step up to the mark too. Listening to Roy Keane the other day, it sounded like he was pretty positive that we’d get a performance from the Irish team — although he added that he didn’t know if it would still be good enough to get the win. Well, I think that if we do get that performance, we will get the win which will guarantee our progress.
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