Irish absentees in defence, midfield and up front tip the balance the way of the Bosnians in Zenica tonight, particularly when you factor in Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic, two players better than anyone in our team, writes Liam Brady
IT WAS always likely to be the case that, if Ireland were to have a chance of qualifying for France 2016, it would come down to where we find ourselves now — on the brink of yet another play-off.
I always thought that Germany and Poland would finish above us in the group, leaving it to Scotland and ourselves to fight it out for third place. And because of what you could only describe as our unlikely results against the world champions, we managed to do it, even if it was touch and go for quite a while.
The last time we were in a play off, for Euro 2012, we got a generous draw against Estonia and then enjoyed what turned out to be a routine passage to the finals, thanks to that 4-0 win in Tallin in the first leg.
However, a play-off against Bosnia is an entirely different proposition. Whereas we were always strong favourites against Estonia I would make this match 50-50. Or, rather, that’s what I would have said if Martin O’Neill had a full-strength side available, but, with Shane Long, Jon Walters and John O’Shea all missing from tonight’s first leg in Zenica, I fear that tips the balance in favour of the Bosnians.
Bosnia, although still relative newcomers on the international scene, have made great strides over a couple of decades from being also-rans to a country which qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time in 2014, and there’s no doubt that they now come into these play-off games with real big match experience under their belts. And in Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic, the Roma centre forward and playmaker respectively, I believe they have two players who are better than anyone we have in our team.
The difficulty of the challenge for Ireland is undoubtedly exacerbated by the loss of O’Shea, Walters and Long for tonight’s game — and with big doubts also still surrounding the availability of O’Shea and Long for Monday in Dublin.
In the absence of Long, my expectation is that Martin will opt for Daryl Murphy, as he did in his starting line-up against Germany. The fact that Murphy is back amongst the goals for Ipswich, having scored a hat-trick at the weekend, means that he should be coming into the game with renewed confidence. After last season’s Lord Mayor’s show, when he was banging in all those goals, he had a barren return from the start of this season but, happily, seems to have struck form again of late. So he looks a definite starter as our main striker tonight. However, that makes our game quite predictable. Do you only think about hitting him as a first option? I thought we were very predictable in Poland and consequently never made any clear cut chances.
It leads one to conclude that our best chance of an away goal is a set piece from the likes of Robbie Brady. It has been the case, of course, that the manager has been reluctant, over the bulk of the campaign, to put Shane Long in his starting line-up but, as he memorably showed against Germany, he can make a real impact coming off the bench, so not to have even that option available to us is a real blow.
As is having to do without the huge experience at the back of John O’Shea, even if his last performance, against Poland, was most uncharacteristic. His temperament right from the off was questionable, and he ultimately got himself into big trouble through the sheer amount of fouls he committed. Looking at the alternatives available to O’Neill, I would expect Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh to be the partnership at the heart of the Irish defence.
Keogh should have scored against Poland late on but, there you go, he’s a centre back – and, in fairness to him, he’s done well of late in that role. Clark, for his part, played very well in the Villa-Man City game at the weekend, and the fact that he’s had some playing time compared to Marc Wilson should mean, I think, that he gets the nod.
But, without doubt, O’Neill’s biggest selection dilemma is that there’s simply no like- for-like replacement in his squad for the suspended Jon Walters.
With Murphy up front on his own, his solution might be to look to get Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan in around him, playing off the knock-downs from long balls up to the Ipwich striker. That’s based on my assumption that Martin will revert to Stephen Ward at left back, with Brady playing further forward.
For me, James McClean is a riskier option because he could easily lose his discipline in the pumped up, high stakes atmosphere of a play-off game — we’ve seen that happen before.
Against Germany, Ward actually had a very good game, as did Brady, so — while it’s always a bit of gamble trying to second guess the manager — it wouldn’t surprise me if O’Neill fields a team of Randolph, Coleman, Keogh, Clark and Ward at the back, then McCarthy, Hendrick and Whelan, with Hoolahan and Brady like inside forwards, and Murphy up front.
In an ideal world, Ireland would get an away goal tonight but, for me, a good enough result would be to come away from Zenica with a one-goal deficit, especially considering we’re going into the game missing very serious players. A one-goal deficit would give us a real chance in the second leg, and a one-goal deficit with an away goal scored would make it all the better.
The worst case scenario? Take Gibraltar out of the equation, and it’s clear we’re not a team that scores many goals. And so my concern is that if we get beaten by two, it will be very difficult for us to overturn that in Dublin.
One thing is for sure: we simply cannot afford to lose our cool in the heat of battle tonight, like we did in Glasgow and Warsaw. Lack of discipline has been a recurring and disappointing feature of the whole campaign, and now that it’s come down to these two decisive games, we need really disciplined and measured performances from the players, back to back.
We are capable of getting through but, unlike Estonia, it’s not going to be easy.
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