Midfield remains the minefield for Martin O'Neill

They started last night’s match in unison but as the friendly against the Netherlands progressed, it became evident Harry Arter and Stephen Quinn were battling against each other for a ticket to France.

Amid the auditions which began after Euro qualification was secured back in November, only one of the pair is likely to feature in the 23-man squad which Martin O’Neill settles on late into the night on Monday.

Central midfielders of different styles, both showed glimpses of their respective traits against the Dutch on an evening of relative experimentation. Neither did enough to suggest they’ll dislodge any of the three bankers for the position – James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick – but the alternatives like David Meyler, Eunan O’Kane and Darron Gibson are not assured of making the cut.

If O’Neill is to critically appraise last night’s tepid affair, then his team’s failure to retain possession would be foremost in his concern.

Nothing new for an Ireland team, perhaps, yet the way Danny Blind’s side outplayed Ireland for a long period leading up to the opener was a worrying portent when the class of Belgium and Italy loom.

Midfield berths, therefore, will be integral to Ireland’ French odyssey. Three games in the space is nine days will surely be too much for McCarthy following another injury-plagued season, meaning the onus of anchoring Ireland’s engine-room may at some point easily end up the shoulders of Quinn or Arter.

So which of the contenders is most qualified to play their part?

Were it based on the club season just completed, then Arter is well ahead.

There’s a big difference between starting in the wins over Chelsea and Manchester United, as the Londoner did during Bournemouth’s first season back in the Premier League, than squaring up against the likes of Huddersfield Town and Charlton Athletic, some of the sides Quinn faced for Reading at Championship level.

Only O’Neill doesn’t work that way. Much of his assessment centres on what he sees before his own eyes in training and that is why Quinn was entrusted with a shock start 18 months ago in Tbilisi for the manager’s first competitive outing, the vital win over Georgia.

For the 67 minutes Quinn played last night, there was enough evidence for O’Neill to be convinced of his worth to the squad. Neat in possession and clever with his passing, the 30-year-old was typically steady rather than spectacular.

It’s probably behind the reason he wasn’t snapped up until after his 17th birthday when Sheffield United pounced, by which time many of his peers in Dublin had been paid handsomely to join the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool.

Arter, another to endure a circuitous route to senior international acclaim, was far more prominent in the exchanges last night, albeit not always in favourable terms.

Within four minutes, the crunching tackles which mainly contributed his 21 bookings over the past two seasons, were on full show for Dutch duo Kevin Strootman and Jetro Williams to endure. The inevitable yellow card followed six minute before the break - Memphis Depay the recipient of Arter’s studs on that occasion.

There were positives on this, his first Ireland appearance in almost a year, one that lasted 81 minutes before he made way for O’Kane.

Bustling and exuberant from the outset, he conjured Ireland’s first shot on target after 19 minutes by breaking from deep and unleashing an effort Jasper Cillessen was able the gather after a deflection took the sting of it.

Early in the second half, too, his usefulness in attack was illustrated by the role he played in setting up a chance that Shane Long headed over.

Were he to be a selfish sort, Arter could contend Ireland’s midfield lost their shape following his injury-enforced withdrawal, allowing the Dutch to muster an equaliser.

Still, that would be to neglect some of the errors made by himself on his big night back on the international stage.

Achilles trouble threatened to exclude Arter from contention for the Euros but, now that Irish fans finally saw what he was all about, there shouldn’t be much surprise if his he’s squeezed out from the final equation.

Not even a man-of-the-match gong could disguise the fact he’s still up against it in his quest to clinch a seat on the plane.

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