Beating Austria is Martin O’Neill’s sole focus

The clocks inside the MetLife Stadium hadn’t yet ticked over to the 20-minute mark but a three-letter word that has been the soundtrack to so many good days in Irish football was now marking a pretty bad one.

The Mexican masses, who made up over 90% of the 42,017 in attendance in New Jersey, were savouring what they were seeing — their country 1-0 up and toying with Ireland. Olés peppered the air as Mexican midfielders retained possession with ease. It may have been a friendly but this was bordering on cruel.

Within five minutes they would be two goals to the good. That it was the final margin of victory had more to do with Mexico easing up and Darren Randolph refusing to wilt in the Irish goals than anything else. Because for the first hour, Martin O’Neill’s experimental Ireland malfunctioned spectacularly.

The 3-5-2 system he deployed may suit his side further down the line but not with the cast of characters he had available to him on Thursday night. With six, perhaps seven, of his starters playing out of their natural positions, things threatened to get really ugly for a time.

It wasn’t so much Ireland were playing checkers and Mexico chess. There were moments when it looked like Ireland were instead trying their hand at a spot of Kerplunk. And it wasn’t going well.

At the back Shane Duffy toiled in between Richard Keogh and John Egan. In front of them a midfield triumvirate of Daryl Horgan, Conor Hourihane and Callum O’Dowda were even less effective. It left Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick — two attackers who needed sharpening ahead of the World Cup qualifier showdown against Austria next week — to forage bluntly alone.

The Ireland brains trust persisted with the shapeless shape until just past the hour mark when Wes Hoolahan and Eunan O’Kane were introduced and a more recognisable 4-5-1 system was employed. Another arrival, Stephen Gleeson grabbed a consolation goal and McGoldrick might even have had another at the death.

Perhaps with how his side finished, rather than started, fresher in his mind, O’Neill initially used the word ‘excellent’ to describe the night’s work post-match. With a little bit more time to consider, he was a touch less enthusiastic about the drubbing. But he remained unconcerned about its lasting effects as Ireland prepare for Uruguay in Dublin tomorrow and then the Austrian clash.

“In terms of confidence, and knock of confidence, I’m really not too bothered,” said O’Neill afterwards, as he again insisted it is the process rather than the outcome of international friendlies that concerns him most.

“And the same might occur against Uruguay. I’m getting total focus for the game..the be all and end all is the Austria game. Most of the things that happened today, I kind of expected. [Shane] Duffy’s got through the game, [Daryl] Murphy has got through too. I was worried in case he might pull up, so that’s good news. It showed the players desperately needed some game time.”

O’Neill returned home on Friday to welcome a raft of reinforcements into his international panel, spearheaded by Premier League performers Glenn Whelan, Jonathan Walters, Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter. Adding such experience is particularly welcome given how some of the novices fared against Mexico.

“We’ve a couple of players who’ve only finished the season 10 days ago,” O’Neill said. “We’ll do a little bit of work beforehand. We won’t be able to do much before Sunday but look it’s a total build up to the Austria game. That’s what I want. I’m not deflated. This is not an act. I always told you how I felt about the friendly games.”

Problem is, there was a hope that some question marks that surrounded the Austria game would be erased in New Jersey. They were not. Duffy’s return to full sharpness still looks a bit off judging him on his 90 minutes Stateside, while neither Murphy nor McGoldrick did enough to totally lock down the spearhead role left vacant by Shane Long’s suspension.

“Listen, it’s going to be a different thing altogether against Austria,” said Duffy afterwards. “Out there we wouldn’t have had a lot of experience and it can get tough but as the manager said, we know in the changing room what we have to do in those big games and this was just an exercise in getting fit, getting experience.

“I feel I’m ready to go. It’s a huge game where we’re looking for another three points and obviously Wales play Serbia. Hopefully they can take points off each other but it’s about us. We have to do the business. We always produce in the big games and we have confidence to do the same again.” That positivity was shared by Duffy’s counterparts. All of Ireland’s players repeated a similar mantra, perhaps having been briefed before they left the dressing rooms.

“These games you want to win for confidence, but ultimately the Austria game is what means everything to us, so we have got to be ready,” chimed Keogh.

“But ultimately if you look at our squad, we have got some really good players and when the big games come about, we have got some big players, so we will focus on that. It’s been a great year for Irish football and we want to continue that.”

IRELAND (3-5-2):

Randolph, Keogh, Duffy, Egan; Christie, Horgan, Hourihane, O’Dowda, McClean; Murphy, McGoldrick.

Subs:

Doyle, Pearce, Long for Egan (64); Boyle, O’Kane for Hourihane (64); Gleeson for Horgan (73); Hoolahan for Murphy (64); Browne for Christie (73).

MEXICO (4-3–3):

Cota; Salcedo, Moreno, Reyes, Gallardo; Dos Santos, Hernandez, Herrera; Jimenez, Vela, Corona.

Subs:

Peralta for Herrera (ht); Layun for Salcedo (ht); Alanis for Moreno (ht); Aquino for Corona (58); Pineda for Dos Santos (58); Marquez for Vela (68).

Referee:

Ted Unkel (USA).

Attendance:

42,017

Listen to a preview of the Champions League final with European football writer Paul Little of the Daily Star and backpagefootball.com, Spanish-based football writer Dermot Corrigan and Italian football journalist Emanuele Giulianelli. Presented by Peter McNamara and Larry Ryan of the Irish Examiner.


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