Déjà vu as we bid for a scalp

As the good Dr Thompson once put it: Well, yes, and here we go again.

Another international year, another crunch qualifier, another opportunity to see if a significant European scalp can be taken at home for the first time since Ireland beat the Netherlands in a celebrated World Cup qualifier all of 14 years ago (with no offence intended to Slovakia, who were indeed higher ranked than the hosts, but hardly a team of historic pedigree, when beaten at Croke Park in 2007).

And, not for the first time either, the prevailing mood outside the Irish camp is one more of hope than expectation, as the surprise group leaders come here looking for at least the point that would see them retain the whip hand in qualification, irrespective of other results in tomorrow’s games.

Elsewhere on these pages today, Liam Brady persuasively argues that there are many reasons to be fearful going into the meeting with Poland. And after the bleak disappointment of Glasgow, which brought the team crashing back down to earth from the high of Gelsenkirchen, it’s certainly the case that reasons to be cheerful are much thinner on the ground.

Indeed, if Ireland are to prevail tomorrow, you suspect that almost everything that can affect the outcome of a football match will have to fall in our favour: The elimination of error by total attention to what Trap used to call the “leetle” details; an ability to match or even eclipse the Poles in the blood and thunder stakes; individual displays that are close to the peak of what key players like Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy can deliver; and as well as endeavouring to keep a clean sheet at one end, the priceless capacity to make the most of what few chances are likely to come Ireland’s way at the other. Oh, and not forgetting the mandatory rub of the green.

We’ve grown so accustomed by now to seeing Irish sides surrender the bulk of possession to technically superior opponents, even at home, that it seems almost inevitable a similar pattern will emerge at the Aviva tomorrow, notwithstanding the onus being on Martin O’Neill’s men to take the game to a Polish team which finds itself in a position in the group where a share of the points would do them nicely.

To boost the cause of an Irish victory, I’d love to see a cutting edge of Robbie Keane with Wes Hoolahan playing in behind him, a combination which — outside of set-pieces — might offer our best chance of both a route to goal and an arrival at the terminus.

There are risks, of course, not least that the LA Galaxy man can’t really trouble defences with his pace any more. But with our most creative and inventive player as his supplier, the quality of ball provided would make it more likely that Keane wouldn’t have to do too much more than what he still does better than anyone else in the squad — and that’s finding the back of the net.

I would further contend that Hoolahan, though by no means a textbook defensive addition when required to be an extra body in midfield, nevertheless also provides the team with a valuable pressure-release valve by virtue of his ability to retain possession of the ball and use it wisely.

And, assuming there are no lingering worries about his fitness, I’d also like to see a place in one of the wide midfield berths for Robbie Brady, whose delivery and set-piece expertise could make the difference if the game is tight.

Of course, O’Neill, as is his wont, was giving nothing away about his team selection when he briefed the media in Malahide yesterday, although his upbeat comments about a player who hasn’t featured for his club since the end of January do suggest he’s prepared to do what Roberto Martinez won’t, and turn again to Aiden McGeady.

“When I was involved as a player,” said the manager, “we would have had players coming in for Northern Ireland who hadn’t played regularly at club level but suddenly they got a lift from playing international football. And that’s what I’m hoping for here.

“Roberto Martinez is absolutely entitled to pick whoever he wants to at club level. If he doesn’t think Aiden is playing well enough to merit a place in his team, that’s entirely up to him. We’ve a different aspect here. We sometimes maybe don’t have the particular choice in hand for players in that position.

“Aiden is very, very important to us. He had a great start against Georgia and I thought he continued that on, though he might have been a bit disappointed in Scotland. But, overall, he is important to us. And I think the change of environment for the week might just give him that lift. I’m hoping for that.”

With all of his squad players having trained yesterday, O’Neill has a relatively strong hand with which to play, ostensibly in contrast to his Polish counterpart Adam Nawalka, who is minus his first-choice full-backs and right-sided midfielder.

However, given the Poles have strength in depth to back up the lethal threat of talisman Robert Lewandowski, O’Neill isn’t inclined to read too much into any perception of depletion in the visitors’ ranks.

“I don’t think it will change anything, having looked at some of the players who have come in during the friendly game against Switzerland,” he said. “Knowing what I know of the players at club level who possibly will take those places, I don’t think it will change their outlook in the game and I don’t think it will change the way they play either.”

The manager confessed that he still had selection decisions to finalise, including, one suspects, whether he goes with James McClean or Robbie Brady out wide and, in the likelihood that Marc Wilson will replace Stephen Ward at left-back, whether Ciaran Clark or Richard Keogh should partner John O’Shea in the heart of the defence.

And then, of course, there’s that renewed Keane/Long puzzle, into which can also be factored the expectation that there will be a place in the starting 11 for the ever-reliable Jon Walters.

“You can talk until you’re blue in the face,” O’Neill observed yesterday, finally calling a halt to the raging speculation. “But if you boil it all down, I think the main thing is this: Go into the game with confidence, real serious confidence, put club football — if it’s trials and tribulations — aside, get that shirt on, and go for it.”

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