Ireland head to Belgrade for their Group D opener on September 5 with justifiable momentum from the European Championships but, from the analysis conducted by the manager, there may be precious little margin for error in pursuit of a first appearance at the global showpiece since 2002.
Studying the threat posed by Wales, Austria and Serbia, O’Neill feels Ireland’s could be the pool marooned at the conclusion when eight of the second-placed side across the nine groups earn a play-off shot at reaching Russia.
To put the task of conquering the group in context, Ireland last did so back in 1988 when Ireland finally ended its major tournament drought by reaching the European Championships.
“I genuinely think our group might be the one with the least amount of points,” reasoned the Derryman yesterday during a trip to Clonmel to help make the draw for the FAI Cup third round.
“There’s no rule to say you can’t top the group with 11 points but it won’t happen. Teams will beat each other because I feel our group is going to be exceptionally difficult.
“We’ve got Serbia first away in September, a team with some top players. Austria had high expectations at the Euros and, though they didn’t do well, they will be kicking themselves. Their players won’t have changed and neither will their ability. They will be ready.
“We don’t play Wales until next year but they’ve got a world-class player in Gareth Bale. I think Georgia will improve again under their new manager who has got them going and Moldova won’t be easy either. Teams will take points off each other.
“If you could give me points against Moldova now, I would take them and head off to the Bahamas.”
Robbie Keane’s participation in the campaign is due to be clarified in the coming days, yet it’s understood the friendly against Oman on August 31 in Dublin could double-up as a farewell to the Ireland captain and record goalscorer.
If being axed for the games against Italy and France at the Euros caused John O’Shea to consider joining Keane and Shay Given on the path to international retirement, the 35-year-old received some reassurance from O’Neill.
That Shane Duffy, who replaced O’Shea for the two games in France, is suspended for the meeting with Serbia makes the veteran’s presence in the squad all the more pleasing for the boss.
“John took being left out at the Euros pretty well and obviously hid the disappointment,” said the Derryman. “Maybe he thought he could get back into the side for the game against France and that was disappointing for him.
“John has got another year left on his contract at Sunderland and I think he would like to run the two together if he felt he was wanted.
“I don’t retire players; I think the players feel that themselves. I wanted to speak to John and that was a few weeks ago when he was on holiday in Portugal. It’s what I want him to do, be around the place, and that was decent news for him to hear.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill insists he won’t be pressurising the players in his squad currently courting interest from Premier League clubs to make moves, with Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick amongst those in demand.
“I’m not surprised there’s interest in Robbie and Jeff but those things will sort themselves out at club level,” he asserted.
“If they end up playing in the big league that’s great, but it’s a not a concern for me because they have shown what they can do at international level.”
- Brighton have made an improved bid for Blackburn’s Ireland central defender Shane Duffy after an initial offer of £3.5m was rejected. thrown out by Blackburn bit have now returned with an improved bid.
Elsewhere Ireland keeper David Forde has joined Portsmouth on loan from Millwall.