Martin O’Neill: ‘We know it’s going to be a fight to the death’

If Martin O’Neill had been planning to deliver a mission statement to sum up why he believes the going will be heavy as well as hot when Ireland and Georgia lock horns in Tbilisi today, he could hardly have prepared the ground better than did the obliging local journalist who began yesterday’s pre-match press conference in the Dinamo Arena first by reminding the manager that the Irish have an eight-zero record against his national team and then by asking how “easy” did he think it would be for the visitors to make it nine out of nine.

Martin O’Neill: ‘We know it’s going to be a fight to the death’

“I think it’s going to be a very difficult game for us and the record will not play any part in it whatsoever,” O’Neill crisply replied. “Despite the good record that the Republic of Ireland have against Georgia in competitive games and friendly matches, I don’t think that has any bearing on this game. I think it’s a very difficult game for the reasons I’ll give you. Georgia could easily have beaten Serbia here, they played very well against us in the first half of the match in Dublin and they played exceptionally well against Wales.

“So Georgia will probably feel they should have more points on the board. And for all of those reasons, and the fact that this is a competitive World Cup qualifying game, this is a very difficult game for us. But we’re hoping it will be a difficult game for Georgia also.”

O’Neill also seemed to be making a deliberate point when, in an unsolicited remark, he chose to dismiss the phrase popularly used to describe the challenge facing his team in Tbilisi.

“I don’t think this is a tricky tie,” he said, “I think that this is a really, genuinely difficult game for us.”

Which is fair enough, though it did seem reasonable to ask the manager if the Georgians’ strong performance in Dublin last October - when they were unlucky to lose to a Seamus Coleman goal after dominating the first half – had not, at least in part, been facilitated by a lacklustre Irish display.

“Can I learn something from that game? Yes. I had a look at that match and even though we spent the first three or four minutes trying to close them down quickly, trying to win the ball and get some momentum going, we then seemed to relax and allowed them into the game.

“If this game was in Dublin, under different climatic conditions, we might be able to go and address that. It’s going to be warm out here and I think it’s going to be about how you deal with the ball, as much as anything else. We need to try to keep possession in these conditions.

“There’s a number of other things we can address because Georgia came into the game in Dublin and started to dictate matters in a way that a side playing away from home shouldn’t do. But they’re good players, technically very strong, as you would expect Georgian players to be, and I just think it’s a tough game.

“But that said, we’re ready ourselves. That’s the message that we want to get across. We’re ready to roll ourselves. We’ve got four games left and we want to try to make the most of it. We want to try to get something from this game. We know it’s going to be a fight to the death and, regardless of the result, this campaign will take us right to very last game.”

Irish hopes have been boosted by the apparent recovery from an ankle injury of Jon Walters, although O’Neill stopped short of confirming that he will definitely be able to earn his 50th Irish cap tomorrow.

Similarly, while O’Neill spoke warmly about Aiden McGeady’s celebrated match-winner out here three years ago and suggested it might take another moment of such magic to decide the outcome this time around, he still wasn’t was about to give anything away in terms of his actual team selection – although the presence at his side in the press conference room of James McClean was hardly a red herring designed to throw the media.

O’Neill’s reference to how the hot conditions might impact on the Irish approach was interesting. If possession, rather than tempo or intensity, is to prove key this evening, then one could be forgiven for thinking that, logically, this should improve Wes Hoolahan’s chances of getting a start. (Which he should anyway). However, the greater likelihood is that, in the absence of Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady will be given a midfield berth. And while Daryl Murphy is an option up front, Shane Long’s menacing pace should earn him the main striker’s role on a night when the heat is on in more ways than one in Tbilisi and, however the decisive goal or goals come, the bottom line is that any kind of win will do for Ireland.

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