Safety first won’t be enough for Ireland

If Ireland walk the walk tonight like Martin O’Neill talked the talk yesterday then an Aviva Stadium rendered almost mute by the dour spectacle of Saturday’s scoreless draw with Denmark might finally have something to cheer about.

Safety first won’t be enough for Ireland

By Liam Mackey

If Ireland walk the walk tonight like Martin O’Neill talked the talk yesterday then an Aviva Stadium rendered almost mute by the dour spectacle of Saturday’s scoreless draw with Denmark might finally have something to cheer about.

It’s a big if, of course.

But if getting a first win of the Nations League campaign wasn’t incentive enough, then the absence for Wales of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, and rising star Ethan Ampadu should be all the extra encouragement this tentative Irish side needs to believe that the reward will be worth the risk of taking the game to the opposition tonight, as opposed to sitting deep for long periods — as they did against the Danes — apparently seeking, to use the manager’s own phrase, “safety in numbers”.

And getting on the front foot, O’Neill agreed yesterday, starts at the back.

I do think that we can try to push out and get up the field a little bit so that the distances between the centre-back position and midfield is not that far and so getting the team further forward,” he said. “It’s a very big pitch, the Aviva, and maybe we are shorn of a bit of phenomenal athletic ability on the side, so I agree that those distances are important.

“And we do try to work on that. When the danger is cleared for a start, let’s get up a little bit so it gives everybody a better chance. But that’s sometimes easier said than done. Sometimes if we drop back, it feels that there may be safety in numbers. But I am in total agreement with you that it is something that we should be working on.

“Not just there at the back but also to the players in midfield who don’t have big distances to cover if they lose the ball. And, as a consequence, we can get closer to the centre forward.”

Richard Keogh, who skippered the team against the Danes was, not surprisingly, on the same page as the manager, though his thoughts also betrayed the inhibiting fear of a bolder approach leaving them open to a devastating response.

“There are certain times in the game on Saturday where we definitely could have been pushing the line a bit higher and putting pressure on the ball a bit earlier,” he said.

But sometimes in that moment you may be thinking it’s not the right thing to do. They (Wales) have got some pretty special players, so if you make the wrong decision you can be punished. But I agree with the manager, there are certain times where we need to play a little bit higher and push people ahead of us up to the ball a little quicker. We want to make sure that we are on the front-foot and are playing with intensity. If we play with intensity and at our best, we know we are a good team.

With Callum O’Dowda ruled out, there will be at least one change in personnel for Ireland tonight, with Callum Robinson’s lively cameo off the bench on Saturday putting the Preston striker in with a decent chance of starting.

Whether he ends up playing as support to, or instead, of Shane Long remains to be seen, however, with O’Neill still monitoring the effects of 80 minutes of fruitless battle against Denmark on the Southampton man who had been an injury doubt in the run-up to that game.

“What I thought on Callum Robinson was that he gave us extra energy, gave us some impetus, and took on a couple of players,” said O’Neill. “He’s a nice footballer.”

Ideally, Ireland will field two up top tonight, while starting Enda Stevens as a left-wing back would help a more advanced James McClean get some forward momentum going from the start, even if the feeling persists his most effective work is invariably done when he is attacking right out on the flanks.

But regardless of whether O’Neill sticks with the 3-5-2 formation he has now used in successive games or reverts to the old four at the back, the fans who endured Saturday’s stalemate will want to see some convincing evidence that this team, for all its obvious limitations, still has enough about it to be able to impose itself on the opposition on home soil.

Last month’s 4-1 victory for Wales hovers in the background for tonight’s contestants for distinctly different reasons. For Ryan Giggs, the immediate task is to deliver a result which counters the perception that his first night in Cardiff was a false dawn, with his side having subsequently gone down 2-0 away to Denmark in the Nations League before finding themselves on the receiving end of their own 4-1 hiding in a friendly against Spain.

For O’Neill, the task is to show that Cardiff was something more like the darkest hour before the dawn, a notion to which, in all honesty, two draws with Poland and Denmark have given only the most modest kind of encouragement.

O’Neill has recently spoken of how he is seeking to “rebuild” ahead of the start of the European Championship qualifiers next year but while he made another nod in that direction yesterday, he denied that he has already written off achieving anything of significance in the Nations League.

No, no,” he insisted. “We’re trying to build, obviously, but we will try to win the game and gives ourselves a chance.

“We set out in the competition to try and do well. We were well beaten in Wales but we have the chance now to win a match at home, so let’s do it, let’s try and win it.

“If we do that, we’re right back in it.”

Another big if, of course.

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