The second last-chance saloon for Ireland

Time was when the prospect of taking on the Netherlands would have really set Irish pulses racing at the sheer world-beating glamour of it all, inspiring reverential and perhaps even fearful murmurings among the natives about Dutch masters like Gullit, Van Basten, Bergkamp, Kluivert, Overmars, and, yes, perhaps even a certain Mr Van Gaal.
The second last-chance saloon for Ireland

But yesterday’s pre-match press conference with Martin O’Neill was notable for the almost complete absence of questions about tonight’s opposition at the Aviva, with none in the media seeming overly concerned about how the manager might be plotting to contain the likes of Memphis Depay or, after a long absence from the Oranje, the returning Kevin Strootman.

And understandably so, for the fact is there’s more than a hint of role reversal about this fixture, with the Irish the ones accelerating towards the looming Euros finals, while the Dutch — after a shockingly bad qualification campaign saw them miss out on France 2016 — find themselves cast in an unaccustomed supporting role, consigned to embarking on a protracted build-up to the next World Cup campaign

Indeed, there must be a delicious irony for the Irish in knowing their tournament hotel base in Versailles was the one which had been provisionally booked by the Netherlands before it all went wrong for them on the road to France.

Which is not to say that Danny Blind’s transitional side are incapable of getting their mojo back sufficiently to spoil the first of two farewell parties for Ireland, which is expected to bring a near-full house to the Aviva before the final, final bon voyage against Belarus in Cork on Tuesday.

“The opposition will be very tough for us,” said O’Neill of the Dutch who, just two years ago, were revelling in being third in the world.

“They’ll really stretch us, they’ll cause us problems. Our job is to cause them a few but it’s a really great game for us.”

Of course, even if it all goes swimmingly for his team, O’Neill won’t be joining in any celebratory Mexican waves. With his Euros squad yet to be finalised, there is important work ahead for the manager, just as there most assuredly is for the handful of players still hoping to catch his eye and secure one of the few remaining seats on the plane to France.

Naturally, O’Neill doesn’t want his players to suffer a morale-sapping defeat: “Even though it’s a friendly game, I’d like to win if we can and keep spirits pretty high, as they are at the moment.”

But you suspect that, should push comes to shove, he would take even a heavy reversal on the scoreboard ahead of the nightmare scenario of seeing one of his key men succumb to an injury which could threaten their participation at the finals.

Current injury concerns James McCarthy and Ciaran Clark are two who won’t be risked in the line of even friendly fire tonight but — apart from confirming that John O’Shea will play — O’Neill is keeping to his usual habit of declining to show his selection hand until an hour before kick-off. He did, however, indicate that over the course of this evening — and again at Turner’s Cross on Tuesday — we can expect to see a blend of tournament certainties and contenders on the fields of play.

“You’re picking things up in training,” said O’Neill, “but I think I would naturally get a better idea when the game is being played. The best way to impress is to do the things you’re really good at. I think that’s what the players, for the most part, are trying to do. Somebody might just overwhelm us in these two games. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve played or not before: If you’ve played brilliantly in these games that might be the deciding issue.”

O’Neill isn’t just talking about relatively untried candidates like Harry Arter or David McGoldrick. These final auditions could also provide a significant platform for a long-established figure such as Aiden McGeady. His move from Everton to Sheffield Wednesday might now look like it’s destined to be filed under ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’, but, as well as lauding the player for “making the effort” to drop down to the Championship in search of game time, O’Neill was also at pains to remind his audience that McGeady retains “that ability to go past players and create something for you”.

When it comes to his thoughts on the mercurial winger, you can’t help but suspect that O’Neill will always have Georgia on his mind.

Darron Gibson, Stephen Quinn, and Eunan O’Kane are others in the audition line with Arter and McGoldrick tonight, while David Meyler and Kevin Doyle will be hoping to get final chances to stake their claims against Belarus in Cork.

And with one of four goalkeeping contenders set to miss out on the Euros, even the veteran, vastly experienced Shay Given can’t be assured of a big tournament swansong, as O’Neill underlined — with a quip or two — yesterday.

“Time doesn’t stand still for people,” he observed. “You do get older in life, as I’ve found out. I’d imagine this would be his final time but he’s been excellent around the place. I’m not saying that’s everything, it’s not; you’ve still got to have ability.

“But he’s been a great help to the other goalkeepers and really encouraging the whole way through. That helps. But it doesn’t mean your place is certain because you’re good around the place. I could get my daughters to be very good around the place but they might not make it.”

There’ll be a welcome League of Ireland goalkeeping presence in the house tonight, with Dundalk’s Gary Rogers — who has been training for a second spell with the Irish squad — set for a place on the bench in the absence, through play-off duty, of Keiren Westwood and David Forde.

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