For Ireland to get something out of tonight’s game against Germany at the Aviva Stadium will require nothing less than a minor miracle, in my opinion.
With their players finding themselves again, Germany have hit form after an indifferent start to the campaign, brought on by what was an almost-inevitable World Cup hangover. Also, the fact that Ireland are missing a few key players only adds to my feeling of pessimism about this side’s ability to pick up a point tonight. Nor would I be confident that we could do so in Warsaw on Sunday.
In short, I really believe that Ireland’s best chance of getting a play-off place hinges on Scotland failing to get anything out of their match with Poland tonight.
All that said, football is probably the sport most conducive to the phenomenon of the underdog having its day. Time and again, we have seen instances of supposed also-rans upsetting the odds, but for Ireland to do that tonight will require unbelievable spirit and huge resilience, with everybody digging in to help get the desired result.
And by that I’m thinking no higher than a draw. Forget about finishing second in the group – I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of Ireland qualifying automatically for France. We have to achieve what’s achievable.
Ireland’s back four this evening will be severely disrupted by the absence of Ciaran Clark, Marc Wilson and, most especially, Seamus Coleman, who is undoubtedly our best player. Not only does Coleman provide good defensive quality, but he’s one of the best attacking full-backs in the world.
Cyrus Christie did acquit himself well in Portugal against Gibraltar, but you’re really talking about an amateur team there. You could hardly get further from them on planet football than the current world champions and, while Christie doesn’t appear to lack confidence, he’ll need to show an awful lot of mental strength if he’s asked to step into Coleman’s boots tonight.
David Meyler did well when asked to fill that role in Gelsenkirchen, but he’ll almost certainly be needed in midfield, where we’re missing Glenn Whelan. Against a formidable German side, it’s certainly a gamble to ask Christie to play what will be only his second competitive game for Ireland, but I don’t see that Martin O’Neill has a real alternative. In addition, with Robbie Brady a relative newcomer to the role on the opposite side, and Richard Keogh coming in alongside John O’Shea, a very inexperienced defence will take to the field tonight.
Keogh, as it happens, was one of our better players when we lost 1-0 in Glasgow, but this will be an entirely different test. He’ll be up against a technical team who are excellent with the ball on the ground, whereas he seems to relish dealing with balls in the air and the kind of frantic hustle and bustle which characterised the Scotland game.
Greetings from Thomas Müller and myself! pic.twitter.com/cIbr2GJQg4— Basti Schweinsteiger (@BSchweinsteiger) October 7, 2015
To keep a clean sheet against Muller, Goetze, Ozil and company is going to be very difficult but, for me, that’s what our tactical approach should be geared towards. The emphasis has to be on defence, with the midfield required to track back, particularly on the flanks, where Jon Walters will need to give the full-back all the help he can.
In the middle, Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy and David Meyler will need to sit tight and not venture forward that much, leaving Wes Hoolahan to give us a chance going forward, as someone who can retain the ball and bring the midfield players into the action.
Up front, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Daryl Murphy gets the nod. I just don’t think that Martin is convinced that Shane Long is the right man for the job, otherwise we would have seen him get a lot more opportunities. When Long didn’t really do it after being selected ahead of Robbie Keane in Glasgow — which turned out to be the last time Long started in the campaign — I think that might have made up Martin’s mind to look for an alternative. Hence, his decision to opt for Murphy at home to the Scots, a game in which he did quite well.
To his credit, Long didn’t do his own chances any harm when he came on against Georgia in the last match; his pressure and pace really unsettled the visitors. In my opinion, he should actually start against Germany, because, even though his goal record doesn’t compare with Robbie Keane’s, I think he’s the best forward player we have available at the moment.
However, as I say, the evidence so far suggests that Martin doesn’t share that view.
Whatever team is chosen, I think our primary goal tonight has to be to try to contain superior opposition by packing the midfield out and denying the Germans any space in our half. Something similar, in fact, to what we did in Gelsenkirchen, when we kept them out for just over 70 minutes. Getting in their faces and closing them down, but doing so in our half more than in theirs — that’s the only way I can see us nicking a point tonight.
Yet, as I said at the outset, even that’s still a tall order, and so it could be that we’re left looking to Hampden Park for the result that would see Ireland into the play-offs, regardless of what happens in our final two games. It’s certainly a distinct possibility that Poland will do us a huge favour. With Robert Lewandowski in devastating form, they’re quite capable of winning in Glasgow.
Have no doubt, though, that the Scots will be doing their damndest to stay in contention. You’ve got to give it to Gordon Strachan’s team, they’ve played well in a lot of games in this campaign and probably merit more points on the board than they’ve actually accumulated. So, it’ll be a hell of fight in Hampden and, if I had to call it, I could see it finishing in a draw.
Which would bring us back to where we started: The vital need for us to find a point from somewhere.
It might go against the grain of everything we want from an Irish team but I really believe that the best chance, if not the only chance, we have of getting something out of tonight’s match is to unashamedly set out our stall in pursuit of a scoreless draw.
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