EURO 2016 QUALIFIER:
Scotland v Rep of Ireland
It’s been quite a while since there has been such a feverish build-up to an Ireland game.
We’ve had it all before a ball has even been kicked: Inflammatory comment, raging anticipation, wild speculation, inspired comedy and some rather less than funny gags — and that was just the Twittersphere erupting after Wednesday’s drama at the team hotel in Dublin.
If the action on the pitch in Celtic Park is only half as lively tonight, then it will go a long way towards meeting former Scotland manager Craig Brown’s prediction that this could be “one of the all-time classic international matches”.
So, no pressure then.
Indeed, you suspect that, far from having to get his players up for this one, one of Martin O’Neill’s main tasks before his chosen 11 takes the pitch in Celtic Park will be to ensure their feet are firmly on the ground.
The background noise will have built to a ferocious level of intensity by the time Scotland and Ireland step out tonight but, despite all the heady emotion that surrounds this fixture, both sides will have to try their level best to clear their minds of all the extraneous clutter and focus instead on the essentially professional nature of the job in hand: The quest for crucial qualifying points on the road to Euro 2016.
“I think that’s a very fair point, I really do,” said O’Neill last night. “The players are ready for the game, have been for some time, and the same applies to the Scottish players. Now, it’s very much a case about having some discipline about ourselves. We’ll have a better chance if we keep the players on the field.”
The first choice players he won’t have on the field — the injured James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan — means O’Neill is likely to turn to Darron Gibson, who has played little competitive football since returning from injury, and Jeff Hendrick, whose experience at this level is still minimal.
Asked if Gibson would be up to the task of what is expected to be a fiercely contested 90 minutes, O’Neill replied: “Well, if he’s chosen in the game then he’ll have to be up for it. It’s always going to be the case that we might have one or two players who are important for us who might not have played that much at club level. But if he’s chosen in the team, then he knows what he has to do.
“Whether he lasts the game or not might be something else. But he got some game time on Sunday so that helps.
“Jeff Hendrick is a talented player. Every single week he plays for Derby County, and so he’s getting more experienced. But I think these type of matches will test the most experienced players.
“They’ll still have a nervousness about them and sometimes games like this, remarkably, the irony of it all is that maybe some young players step through, dismiss the nervousness and just fly through game. But this is a big game for everyone regardless of the number of times they’ve played for their country.”
At the back too, Marc Wilson’s absence looks set to see another inexperienced international, Richard Keogh, being asked to step up to the mark, with the manager acknowledging the veteran John O’Shea will have a mentoring role to add to his duties tonight.
“John, naturally has that experience,” he observed. “He’s played 100 times for us so I’m hoping that whoever plays alongside him able, that he will be able to guide him through the game. I think young Wilson has benefited from that and I hope it’s going to be the same tonight.”
O’Neill also had praise for what he regards as a new maturity in James McClean.
“Very much so, he has definitely matured a little bit with age and yet retains great zest for the game. You see that in training every single day, chasing lost causes and just that total enthusiasm he has for the game. It is pleasing to see him doing so well for us.”
Yet, as is his wont, O’Neill stopped well short of confirming that he would play two orthodox wingers against Scotland tonight, drawing laughter with his response when asked if, having played him centrally against Germany, he would re-locate Aiden McGeady to his natural habitat on the flank.
“I’m not going to give you any indication today, there’s too many Scottish supporters here,” he said, and then doing his best Mae West impression added, “but come to my room tonight. Please. A quarter past 12.”
Both camps might be feeling the pressure build now but, when it comes to kick off tonight, the bigger weight of responsibility will surely fall on Scotland since they are not only the hosts but the side with ground to make up on Ireland in the table.
It might not be one of those away Euro qualifiers where an Irish team would expect to cede the lion’s share of possession to the opposition — it should be a more open, evenly contested game than that — but, in the knowledge that a point would still represent very good business for the visitors and, given he’s missing two of his first-choice midfielders, O’Neill might be still be inclined to err a little on the side of caution, at least with his starting line-up.
But once the whistle goes in a white-hot atmosphere at Celtic Park, the one thing it seems reasonable to predict is that reality will find some way to rip up the best-laid plans.
Three key battles
It’s difficult to think of a game in Europe between two squads so evenly matched, which is why individuals could have a disproportionate effect. These are where the game could be settled
STEVEN WHITTAKER V AIDEN MCGEADY
The Ireland winger is the man Gordon McQueen has said should be booed, but it’s hard not to think that’s because he will also provide Scotland with their biggest problem.
McGeady has seemingly been buoyed by Martin O’Neill’s system, and is finally offering the form Ireland have waited so long for. Whittaker is at least an experienced enough head to try and control the attacker. He will have to minimise the space McGeady can revel in.
SCOTT BROWN V JEFF HENDRICK
The Ireland midfield is going to require a reshuffle, with two key absences in Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy, but that could mean a key role for the young Derby County midfielder. He has been in sparkling form of late, and looks capable of rising to a new level.
Scotland captain Brown has endured a tough start to the new Scottish Premiership campaign as Ronny Deila has struggled to get the best out of Celtic — and the midfielder was sent off in his most recent outing against Aberdeen. A game like this will require maximum composure.
Steven Fletcher v John O’Shea
Fletcher has netted four goals so far for the Black Cats but has failed to score in any of his country’s qualifying matches, despite showing signs he is returning to his best form. Sunderland team-mate O’Shea has been at the heart of a shaky defence that was humiliated last month by an 8-0 defeat to Southampton — but the defender did score the vital equaliser in his country’s draw against the world champions in that same week.
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