At the Irish team’s hotel in Castleknock yesterday, a few of the senior players told Martin O’Neill about how much of a challenge they think Saturday’s World Cup qualifier in Tbilisi is going to be — and the manager was delighted to hear of their concern.
“I was speaking to three or four lads at lunch time, lads who have been around the squad for some time, and it was good to hear that they think the Georgia game is really difficult,” O’Neill said.
“This is the match and we need total concentration in the game. I don’t think that we have the ability to disrespect anybody. Disrespect may be too strong a word, but to treat anybody lightly. I don’t think we’re good enough to do that and that’s not a disservice to my team.”
The players who talked to O’Neill were speaking from first-hand experience of some of their previous encounters with Georgia which, despite showing a pristine eight-zero record in favour of the Republic, have been games decided, more often than not, by a single goal margin.
“If there’s anybody who should be thinking about it, it’s (Aiden) McGeady,” said O’Neill, referring to the player’s match-winning brace in Tbilisi in a Euro qualifier in 2014. “It would be a great moment to repeat what he did for us out there a few years ago.”
Following his resurgence at Preston and subsequent move to Sunderland, the winger once again seems to be firmly in the thoughts of a manager who has never made any secret of his admiration for the player.
“Well, I also think the club manager likes him as well,” said O’Neill, in reference to Simon Grayson who brought McGeady with him from Deepdale to the Stadium of Light.
“That’s good. He’s getting games, he should be match fit and I think the thing I do remember from the game in 2014 is that in the pre-season he’d done pretty well in terms of fitness so when he came to Georgia that was about as fit as I’d seen him for some time. And physical fitness is important for Aiden.”
Whether or not McGeady gets the chance to reprise his superb double in the same city three years on remains to be seen but, as far as Martin O’Neill is concerned, any kind of goal in Tbilisi, just as long as it proves decisive, will do.
“I would take any win against Georgia, any win,” he said. “This idea about talking about racking up goals — we are not a team that racks up a lot of goals, we haven’t been traditionally for a long, long time and you know that better than me. Just try win the game if you can, that is the only thing we should think about. The results will take care of themselves after that. If you are eventually done on goal difference or something then you would have to consider yourself unlucky.
“If you could guarantee me a win in the game, I would take it. I think it’s a difficult game out there. Their players are underrated, certainly on the western side, but they can definitely play and I think we’ve all seen that. I think, considering they are down as the last seeded side, if there is such a thing as that, then they are the strongest one of them.
“In each of the games that they’ve played, not just against us, they’ve played very well but for one reason or another haven’t been able to sustain it over the full 90 minutes. I am surprised because I think they have a number of really decent players.”
O’Neill had mixed injury news to report from his own camp yesterday with, on the downside, Jeff Hendrick (quad), James McCarthy (hamstring) and Eunan O’Kane all sidelined. But whereas McCarthy and O’Kane are definitely out of both of the upcoming qualifiers, there’s a chance that Hendrick could come back into the picture after Tbilisi.
“I don’t think he has completely ruled himself out yet of the Serbia game,” said the manager. “It might be unlikely but he was feeling much better after the injection he had and those extra few days might help.”
More encouragingly, Jon Walters seemed to be moving pretty freely as he worked with one of the physios at training yesterday.
“When Jon did the injury first of all, he thought it was really bad,” O’Neill admitted.
“Although he hurt the inside of his ankle, the swelling is actually on the outside of it. But he’s upbeat and we’ll see how he goes in the next few days.
“If Jon doesn’t train for a day or two, but still declares himself fit, I will be happy because it’s happened in the past for us where he hasn’t trained at times and he’s come in and been terrific for us.”
In what was being described as a precautionary move, Keiren Westwood and David Meyler, who were both nursing knee injuries, sat out yesterday’s first day of training but it is hoped they will be able to take part today.
While suggesting that a number of players remain on standby, O’Neill has now trimmed his original squad to 25, with strikers Sean Maguire and Kevin Doyle among those who failed to make the final cut.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND SQUAD:
Goalkeepers: Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough), Rob Elliot (Newcastle United), Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday).
Defenders: Cyrus Christie (Middlesbrough), Richard Keogh (Derby County), Shane Duffy (Brighton & Hove Albion), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United), John O’Shea (Sunderland), Kevin Long, Stephen Ward (Burnley).
Midfielders: Aiden McGeady (Sunderland), Glenn Whelan, Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa), Harry Arter (Bournemouth), David Meyler (Hull City), Robbie Brady (Burnley), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), James McClean (West Bromwich Albion), Daryl Horgan (Preston North End), Jonathan Hayes (Celtic), Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City).
Forwards: Jonathan Walters (Burnley), Shane Long (Southampton), Daryl Murphy (Nottingham Forest), David McGoldrick (Ipswich Town).
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