Ireland taking care of business was the limit of most horizons as O’Neill’s side kicked-off against Moldova, not least with Wales having eked out a 1-0 win in Georgia earlier, but that was before Austria went and drew Serbia into the last-ditch scramble out of Group D.
The permutations will still take up much of the weekend and most of Monday until Wales and Ireland set to in Cardiff, but the mood is far more buoyant than before, though the need to win in the Welsh capital remains the one unalterable.
“Is it a surprise that Austria beat Serbia? I don’t think anything has surprised me in the group,” said the Ireland manager last night.
“I said at the beginning that it would be very tight. Georgia are as good as any of the sixth-seeded teams and I said the rest of us would take points off each other.
“That said, Serbia’s last game now is at home to Georgia and it would be a surprise were they to lose, but we are in with a fighting chance. We had to win tonight and we did that so on we go now to Cardiff.”
Strip away all the noise elsewhere in Europe and the bottom line is that Wales and Ireland both need to win. It’s a scenario that will make for an electric atmosphere in the 33,280-capacity stadium. A winner-takes-all game and yet one where even victory could prove to be pyrrhic.
“Regardless of the Wales result in Georgia, we had to go and win the (Moldova) match,” said O’Neill, finally allowing himself the luxury of looking ahead to the tenth and final group game.
“We didn’t want to be talking about a game a couple of days in the future. This result was important and the early goals settled any nerves.
“We go to Wales now and we will apply ourselves and play very strongly and resolutely. We can win the game and I felt it was always going be like this. We got off to a decent start (in the group) and the mindset might change in terms of points, but if you’d said to me at the start that we would have to go to Wales and need a win I would have taken that.”
The ‘derby’ nature of this Celtic affair should only add to the atmosphere but O’Neill batted away the suggestion that the tackle from Neil Taylor that broke Seamus Coleman’s leg in Dublin last March might add ‘needle’ to the occasion.
“I hope not,” he said. “Hopefully not.”
The Irish manager has stuck religiously to the assertion that Coleman’s absence has been every bit as significant to Ireland as that of Gareth Bale who sat out the Welsh game in Tbilisi last night and will do so again come Monday.
Whether he actually believes that to be the case or not, the absence of the Real Madrid superstar clearly tilts the scales back to something closer to parity when the respective lists of personnel are assessed.
Ireland still have enough to fret over.
Shane Long admitted to his manager that he can’t buy a goal as he walked down the tunnel after last night’s game but the brace from Daryl Murphy and the contribution of Callum O’Dowda were welcome shafts of light amid the gloom of the past six months.
“I have a lot of time for him,” O’Neill said of O’Dowda. “When I saw him play for the 21s I brought him in to train with the seniors. That was some time ago and he came on against Moldova over in Moldova when it was 1-1.
“So that will have given him some confidence. My advice to him at club level was to drive at people when he gets the opportunity because he has pace and he is growing in confidence and getting more playing time at club level.
“He’s a really good lad. I’ve got a lot of time for him.”
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