LIAM MACKEY: Nations League could prove more meaningful than expected

Even on the back of a painful hiding, one game into a new campaign might seem a bit too early to be talking about crisis.

But the difficulty in avoiding the word is that in Cardiff on Thursday, Ireland took up where they left off in Dublin in November — forced into playing the role of whipping boys in green. In successive competitive games, at home to Denmark and away to Wales, they have now shipped a whopping nine goals and scored just two.

In between, there have been those underwhelming spring and summer friendlies, from which by some distance the most promising development was Declan Rice’s emergence as a senior international exuding class and composure beyond his years.

But, just a few months on, all we can do for the moment is wonder if the 19-year-old will yet turn out to be part of the solution to Ireland’s problem. Meanwhile, Welsh football is entitled to luxuriate in the afterglow of a midfield masterclass — in the position Rice would ideally occupy in the green shirt — given on his competitive debut by 17-year-old Ethan Ampadu, one who definitely did get away. The headline in the South Wales Echo read ‘Child’s Play For Wales’, which made wince-inducing reading for Irish eyes yesterday in Cardiff.

The issues for Ireland go deeper than a single player anyway, even if there were obvious mitigating circumstances in the Cardiff City Stadium. In what was his 50th game as an international manager, Martin O’Neill’s options were seriously compromised by the absence of key personnel, whereas his Welsh counterpart Ryan Giggs, in what was his first competitive game in charge, had the full deck with which to play, including his marquee names — chief among them, of course, the outstanding Gareth Bale — as well as a handful of young guns who were positively brimming with verve and ambition.

If the visitors didn’t already know they were up against it before the first whistle blew, the match programme offered an uncomfortable reminder as, under the title of ‘Three To Watch’ for Ireland, were listed James McClean, Shane Long and Jon Walters.

The latter ended up having one of those nights when the many hard-earned miles under his belt were all too evident while, at the other end of the experience spectrum, Callum Robinson found himself thrown in at the deep end, charged with the dual role of supporting Walters and dropping back to make a three in midfield. Unfortunately, though lively and hard-working, Robinson was infected with the recurring Irish striker’s disease, spurning the one clear-cut chance that came his way to even hit the target, let alone register a debut goal. Ultimately, that personal honour would fall to Shaun Williams who took his chance with aplomb but, as a defensive midfielder aged 31, can scarcely be considered the long-term answer in the seemingly endless quest for a new Robbie Keane.

It can easily be forgotten in the euphoric recall of what at the time was a famous 1-0 win that, in the World Cup qualifier at the same venue last October, the Welsh had Ireland under the cosh from the opening whistle until a major turning point arrived when Joe Allen, who’d been running the show for the home side, was made the meat in a sandwich between McClean and David Meyler and had to leave the fray early doors.

In what backfired as an apparent attempt to get on the front foot on Thursday, O’Neill opted not to play Meyler, and the failure of either Jeff Hendrick or Conor Hourihane to lay a glove on the Welsh midfield left the Irish defence without any real protection. Which is not to exonerate what should have been the strongest sector in Ireland’s otherwise weakened team, however, as O’Neill’s first choice back five crumpled in the face of vibrant Welsh attacking.

But the biggest problem which continues to hamper this team is a general dearth of quality and creativity. Even if O’Neill is not the only manager to have lacked total faith in Wes Hoolahan, his retirement was always going to leave Ireland struggling to field another player with his playmaking ability, especially with another one-time contender, Jack Grealish, permanently out of the picture.

In Cardiff, the Irish players who were most successful at taking on opponents and endeavouring to progress the play were Seamus Coleman and Cyrus Christie, two full-backs, even if the enforced reshuffling of the team meant the latter was deployed further up the pitch on the night.

The manager repeatedly asserts the need for his players to “deal better with the ball” but it still only happens spasmodically, if at all. And it’s hard to see how, over the short term, individual flair and collectively fluency in possession can become something even a little bit closer to the norm. Perhaps a rejuvenated James McCarthy and Robbie Brady will step up to the plate. And maybe an injury-free Sean Maguire can supply the cutting edge. And all the while, of course, a nation turns its lonely eyes to Deco.

Meanwhile, the jury is out on whether O’Neill can recapture the Midas Touch which has helped Ireland to sensationally over-achieve in key games under his watch. All we can say for sure right now, is that inspiration in the dug-out and on the pitch is in alarmingly short supply. And if, over the next couple of months, the decline from the high of qualification for the World Cup play-off can’t be reversed — or at least halted — then the fuzzy concept that is the Nations League could turn out to be far more meaningful, and even sharply defining, for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland than anyone could have guessed.


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