Martin O’Neill yesterday used the word “renaissance” to describe where Georgia are at on the back of that 1-0 victory against Scotland which has breathed fresh life into Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for France 2016.
Considering that tonight’s visitors to the Aviva are still second from bottom in Group D and have lost all but five competitive games on the road in the last 10 years, it was a rare excursion into hyperbole by the normally cautious manager — and one he wasn’t about to repeat in relation to his own side, despite a popular perception since Friday’s results in Tbilisi and Faro that Ireland’s qualifying campaign has suddenly swung from bust to boom.
“We’ve all got a habit here of getting ahead of ourselves,” he warned. “I heard something about how it’s ‘ours to lose’ now. But we’ve still got games against Germany and Poland. We’ve got this tough game here against a resurgent Georgia side who’ve come here with plenty of confidence having just beaten Scotland.
“Regardless of their results in the past, they will come here buoyant, thinking they can do it, with some really good players. Maybe I was thinking that they might celebrate or something and fly out on Sunday but they came here straight after the game on Friday, and that’s how serious their intentions are.
“Actually, it’s not a bad thing for us. I don’t think we’re capable anyway of sitting back and thinking that something is going to happen for us — we have to fight for everything.
“Things are difficult for us. We aren’t at this minute capable of being like Spain, of being able to wipe the floor with people. We have to fight for every single particle that’s going. We have to battle for it. We have to find some ways of winning football matches.
“And we’re in there fighting. And even if Scotland had won on Friday, we’d have still been in the mix. But we’re far from anything, from anything at all. I can’t even consider October at all until we get points on the board. We need to win against Georgia and that has to be our total and utter focus. Whether we do that or not, whether we’re a bit unlucky and hit the post a couple of times as we did against Poland and don’t get the result, or whether Georgia actually come out and just sweep us off the field, that is something we don’t know.
“But I think we’re ready for the game.” It would, of course, help Ireland’s cause no end if Germany beat Scotland in Hampden Park tonight, a result which, in tandem with an Irish victory against Georgia, would give O’Neill’s team a four-point advantage over the Scots in the hunt for a play-off place going into the last two games. But, once again, O’Neill was not inclined to look beyond events in the Aviva Stadium this evening.
“I think there will be more patience (required) against Georgia,” the manager said, having revealed he’d watched their game against Scotland twice over the weekend as well as digesting a report from an unidentified Irish spy at the match in Tbilisi. “They are rejuvenated. Their celebrations at the end were as if they had qualified for the competition itself. So it’s a really big game for us. The position we are in is that we’ve two home games and one away and you would not say that the games after this one are easy.
“Scotland still feel that they have an advantage in terms of us by their better head to head record. I know that might be of significance at the end. But it’s up to us now — regardless of what happens in Scotland — to get out tonight with the three points.”
As ever, the manager was giving little away about his team selection, other than confirming that if Seamus Coleman — who did some training yesterday— suffers no further problem with his tight hamstring, he will resume at full-back in place of Cyrus Christie. O’Neill’s main preoccupations ahead of tonight’s game are two aspects of the game in which, the facile meetings with Gibraltar aside, Ireland have been strictly limited in this campaign — goals and the creativity to make goal chances.
In search of the former, he still appears to be weighing up the contrasting claims of Robbie Keane and Shane Long, while the urgent need for the latter could see the return of a more orthodox winger such as James McClean or Aiden McGeady and another start for Wes Hoolahan, despite an unusually erratic performance from the little schemer in Faro. “He had a bit of a mixed bag,” O’Neill conceded. “A couple of times the final ball, which I mentioned to him at half-time, could have been better for one of his quality. But then he earns the penalty for us with a little bit of trickery around the box. I took him off in the game to help preserve energy. He’s a growing influence in our side, very good, particularly at home, where we’re having trouble trying to unlock defences.
“He’s particularly good at that.” This correspondent’s verdict? Ireland to make the most of Georgia’s gift from Tbilisi on Friday but only after encountering them in much less generous frame of mind on their trip to Dublin. Anything other than one of those all too familiar long nights at the Aviva would be a welcome surprise.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (Possible):
Shay Given; Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Ciaran Clark, Robbie Brady; Jon Walters, James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan, James McClean; Wes Hoolhan; Robbie Keane.
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