After the Rock, it’s time for Ireland to roll. Mick McCarthy might not welcome the notion that, just 90 minutes into his new reign, the pressure is already intensifying but, even allowing for the extent to which the conditions in Gibraltar on Saturday made for something of a lottery of the game at times, Ireland’s underwhelming performance en route to scrambling the narrowest of victories against the Group D minnows, didn’t exactly inspire confidence that a corner has been turned in the fortunes of the Irish team.
The hope must be then that the peculiar circumstances of that contest made for something of a false start, at least in terms of the level of the away team’s performance, and this evening on home soil — the real stuff, to boot — and with the elements more inclined to play ball, the second game of the second coming will provide something more like convincing evidence of progression as well as another victory to add to the three points which were so hard-earned and, in the end, so very welcome in Gibraltar.
Standing in the way are familiar foes Georgia who must feel they are due one against Ireland after losing just 1-0 in Dublin and drawing 0-0 in Tbilisi when the sides last met in qualifying, for the 2018 World Cup. Even though Vladimir Weiss’s team come into this one on the back of a 2-0 defeat at home to Switzerland, Mick McCarthy would hardly disagree with Martin O’Neill who always insisted that the Georgians were a distinct cut above most of their supposed lower seed European peers.
“You have seen more of Georgia than I have,” the new manager told reporters yesterday. “And you all know what a damn good team they are. You all know it.”
That said, McCarthy’s main concern this evening will be with extracting more from his own side than they were able to deliver first time out and he is convinced that the quality inherent in his squad is just waiting to be revealed.
“I’ve seen it on a daily basis when they have been training. They have been excellent and the standard has been terrific. We have got good players and they are really committed players as well. The intensity of training has been great. So I envisage that we would see better than Saturday. That was all set up for a cup upset, and it did not happen which pleases me. We did not concede although it took a fabulous save from Darren to keep it out.”
While the onus will be on Ireland to get on the front foot in the Aviva, it’s hard to imagine that Randolph won’t be tested a bit more this evening than he was in Gibraltar.
“I wasn’t expecting to be overly busy,” the goalkeeper said with nice understatement yesterday, “but I knew any game you play against any team, they’ll always have a chance. And I was ready when needed.”
Indeed he was but, at the other end of the pitch, it was a much less rewarding night for Sean Maguire in his quest to score his first goal for his country.
“I don’t think we got the best out of Sean with some of the service. The ball was bobbling about at his feet and it was horrible. Let’s clear that up. He’s a runner so that’s when you get the best out of him. He’s quick and athletic and if we can get him slid inside anywhere in the box, then he’s a threat and will score goals. So I don’t think we got the best out of Sean. I have just spoken to him this morning and he knows that. He said that he was as nervous as he has been, strangely enough.”
While it remains to be seen if Maguire is given a second shot from the off tonight, David McGoldrick’s bright showing in Gibraltar should assure him of a place in the starting line-up. By contrast, Shane Duffy must at least by rated doubtful after he went for a precautionary scan on a sore ankle yesterday. Matt Doherty is another over whom there is a question mark after he was substituted on Saturday, with the manager admitting that the experiment of playing him as a right-midfielder hadn’t panned out as planned. Robbie Brady could get the nod in that position tonight while a tactical reshuffle might also see Harry Arter or Glenn Whelan introduced to provide an extra body in middle of the park.
That would be more in the way of a screening move but, after Jeff Hendrick did what was asked of him by getting forward to score in Gibraltar, McCarthy is also hoping to see more of a high-pressure, attacking threat from his Irish midfield.
“Winning the ball high up, trying to win it in their half, being able to keep the ball, pass it better, getting midfield runners into the box — it’s hard to do it from deep,” he said. “Give them a licence to get into the box and try and score goals. That’s how my team will play, and let’s see how it works.”
For his homecoming as Ireland manager, McCarthy would dearly love to entertain the faithful by winning in style.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” he mused. “It’s utopia, playing well and winning. Winning is not far off utopia, I reckon. But winning and playing well is a lot better. I watched the 21s (beating Luxembourg 3-0). That was a great performance and result. It would be nice to play as well as that and get a similar result.”
Indeed, but you also know that he won’t be complaining if, whatever else happens happen at the Aviva, Ireland have six Euros qualification points on the board by close of day.