Portugal are unlikely to risk their key man for the full 90 minutes ahead of next Monday’s opening game against Germany as he struggles to prepare fully for the World Cup, constrained by an obscure knee injury.
But for O’Neill, the Republic of Ireland’s long-term development under the still relatively new management team will be better aided by the chance to measure up against one of the greatest players of the modern era.
“We had a few problems the other night (against Costa Rica) at the beginning of the second half of the game for about 15 or 20 minutes when (Joel) Campbell came out wide and caused us a few problems,” said O’Neill.
“So you could imagine Ronaldo being in that sort of form.
“It should be great for us to want to go and play against him, if that’s the case. I think actually, the players want him to be playing in the game so they can go and test themselves.”
The Ireland boss was so effusive in his praise that he even asked a Portuguese reporter to pass on a message from Ronaldo’s former team-mate, Roy Keane.
“Roy has the highest opinion of him both as a player — which we obviously all have — and as a person as well. He says he’s a great person. I’m passing that on. If that message ever gets to him, tell him that Roy Keane still holds him in the highest regard. I’m sure he’d be delighted with that too. He’s a really great player.”
O’Neill said he is hoping to be in Salvador’s Arena Fonte Nova on Monday when the hotly-anticipated clash of the top seeds in Group G kicks off.
“That will be a big test so I don’t know what team they will produce (tonight). Maybe the coach has already made his mind up what team might start against Germany. We are really looking forward to the game, whether they are able to start Ronaldo or not.”
As for his own team, O’Neill called on his players to produce a performance akin to that which they produced against the Italians and “finish on a high”.
“We’ve utilised (the squad). We’ve made a number a number of changes in each game and players have had to get used to playing with each other, some lads have come into the squad for the first time, for instance.
“If you look at Shane Duffy, he played the game the other night and overall, he did fine in the game and he will come on really well for the experience. I think it’s the same for a number of the younger lads too.”
Duffy didn’t train yesterday due to a calf problem while Shane Long was restricted to only taking a small part due to his long-running back issues.
Meanwhile, Glenn Whelan has returned home due to a family issue and the injured Marc Wilson is definitely out but Jon Walters and Stephen Ward are now available for selection, having flown out to join up with the squad.
Interestingly, New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara was invited to train with Ireland yesterday morning, a first informal run-out that has been a couple of years in the making for the Irish-American player.
“I think he enjoyed it,” said O’Neill. “He had a training session this morning with the senior team and (former Scotland manager) Andy Roxburgh, the senior manager, just came over to say thanks. I think it was an appreciation for us being allowed to use the (Red Bulls) training facilities too.
“I’d obviously need to see a bit more of him. It was the first time I saw him live… it would be very hard to make an assessment today on a 15-minute each way game. But I’ll definitely keep an eye on him.”
Almost 50,000 fans are expected at the Meadowlands, New Jersey home of the NFL’s New York Giants and Jets and with a depleted Ireland facing a talented Portuguese outfit, O’Neill was content yesterday to describe the trip as a success no matter what happens in the early hours of tomorrow morning.
“Better than I could have imagined,” said O’Neill. “The attitude of the players has been terrific. The fact that Stephen Ward, who was away, has flown in to play the game with no bother shows the sort of attitude that the players have. When the extra games were put in, it was great for me, maybe not for the players, who’ve been stretched out for three odd weeks when they could be out on holiday.
“I think it will benefit those players to be around the senior lads and not to be fearful when it comes to the big matches. From every aspect, it’s been a really terrific trip.”