Far from being out of World Cup contention by Christmas, as Martin O’Neill feared in the aftermath of the Euros, Ireland find themselves blazing a trail at the summit of Group D after four games.
Three wins in a row have been delivered following the opening night draw in Serbia and 2017 looms offering optimism of a first World Cup appearance in 16 years. That possibility becomes a certainty were Ireland to maintain their form but which players have been to the fore in producing a splendid haul of 10 points?
Have those who produced at the Euros kicked on or faded? And what about the others that have broken into the fray since the summer? Here, we assess the contribution of the 21 players used by O’Neill so far.
Darren Randolph: 4 starts.
Ireland’s surge has coincided with the installation of Randolph as their No 1 in the wake of Shay Given’s injury-enforced substitution against Germany 13 months ago. A few shaky moments by the stopper in Serbia, and another for Moldova’s goal, cannot detract from the encouraging presence he’s provided throughout.
Seamus Coleman: 4 starts.
Seems to be setting new standards month on month at this stage, typified by the masterclass in Vienna in neutralising Marko Arnautovic. Ireland’s captain has taken to the role with gusto, even crowning his elevation by rescuing the side on a rocky night against Georgia by raiding into the box and scoring the winner.
Richard Keogh: 1 start.
The centre-back held onto his place from France for the opener in Belgrade only to be exposed by Serbia’s renowned attacking threat. It resulted in him being axed for the visit of Georgia and he’s been unable to regain his place so far. Will be ready if called upon.
John O’Shea: 1 start, 1 sub appearance.
One of Martin O’Neill’s most astute moves of 2016 was assuring O’Shea of his value to the squad, thereby influencing to park any notion of retiring. His experience was much needed in Serbia but he doesn’t possess the pace of old and so made way for the younger Shane Duffy in the next outing. Like Keogh, he’s relying on a clip by either Duffy or Ciaran Clark to dislodge either of the pair.
Ciaran Clark: 3 starts, 1 sub appearance.
After losing his place at the Euros, Clark has been restored as one of O’Neill’s defensive mainstays. Delivered a towering performance in Vienna, both in the air and on the deck. Rather than being caught for an own-goal, as he was in France, Clark is being more incisive with his runs and interceptions.
Shane Duffy: 3 starts.
It seems Duffy has been around the squad for years, having first been mooted in 2010, but competitive action has only come his way since the summer. His prowess in the box from set-pieces was evident on Saturday when he almost scored from a corner but, most importantly, his defensive game has matured since his move to Brighton. Needs to cut out the mistakes that cost a goal in Moldova.
Callum O’Dowda: 1 sub appearance.
The prime graduate from Ireland’s U21 squad, O’Dowda impressed O’Neill enough to be granted a role from the bench in Moldova last month when the game was in the balance at 1-1. Has proved a valuable addition to the squad, giving another option on either flank.
Robbie Brady: 3 starts.
Ireland’s Mr Versatile will also play when available but concussion last month, and now suspension, have and will affect his participation. If it’s in midfield, where he and O’Neill prefer to position him, or at left-back, as needed on Saturday, Brady does the job with minimal fuss. An unnecessary booking picked up at the weekend is the only blot on his copybook.
Jeff Hendrick: 3 starts.
Now an established member of Ireland’s midfield, Hendrick was particularly impressive on the away assignments in Serbia and Austria. His power and poise are these day essential ingredients of O’Neill’s team and, should be start adding goals, like he displayed in Belgrade, then the Dubliner could join the elite group of great Irish midfielders in time.
Glenn Whelan: 3 starts, one sub appearance.
No longer a guaranteed starter in the team, Whelan has played the full 90 minutes in just two of the four games and would probably have missed out in Vienna had James McCarthy been available.
The much-derided Whelan remains popular with O’Neill and Keane, ensuring he’s turned to when needed. Still, that Ireland improved following his injury-enforced withdrawal on Saturday doesn’t reflect well on his worth to the cause.
David Meyler: 2 sub appearance.
A bit of familiarity goes a long way, so O’Neill and Keane knew what they were getting by throwing the player they each managed at Sunderland on in the last two qualifiers. On Saturday, he played over an hour and not only kept a leash on David Alaba, but started the move for Ireland’s opener. Meyler’s importance should not to be underestimated.
Eunan O’Kane: 1 sub appearance.
A cameo in Moldova in his first competitive appearance for Ireland has been the extent of his game-time, though injury prevented the player recently signed by Leeds United from assembling for the Austria trip.
Harry Arter: 1 sub appearance.
Any concern over his allegiances were binned when Arter started in Vienna, fitting in beside Hendrick and Whelan before the latter limped off. Showed some flashes of his class but it remains to be seen if he can replicate his club form with Ireland.
James McCarthy: 2 starts.
McCarthy’s name in this campaign is more linked to a war of words between his two managers than anything on the pitch. Clearly, his injury problems are never far away and he didn’t look at his most match-fit in either of the games against Georgia and Moldova last month. For the first time under O’Neill, McCarthy’s place might be under threat.
Wes Hoolahan: 2 starts.
Cruelly left on the bench in Serbia, Brady’s injury opened a vacancy for Wes to fill on Moldova, where he didn’t take long to make an impact. O’Neill finally placed his trust in the magician on a big away day at the weekend and, though not his finest showing, the pass for McClean’s winner was enough to demonstrate class.
Aiden McGeady: 1 sub appearance.
Unlike the start of the last campaign, when much depended on the twinkle-toed winger, McGeady is much more expendable in the current set-up. Injuries have constricted him too, but even in his brief time on the pitch at the weekend, there were touches of the old McGeady. Still way down the pecking order.
James McClean: 4 starts.
Can no more be branded an impact substitute, McClean has excelled so far, in particular the last two outings against Moldova and Austria. Hit the net three times in those pair of matches, a clear indication of the goalscoring threat he poses. Seems better at funnelling his frustration in a positive way these days.
Jon Walters: 4 starts.
Could hardly move by the end of Saturday’s win, unsurprising considered his input to the win. Either on the wing, or up top like Saturday, Walters is a component O’Neill cannot do without. His cuteness and leadership qualities are other elements of his contribution. Yet to score in the campaign, but had headers in Serbia and Austria disallowed for being marginally offside.
Shane Long: 3 starts.
Has taken over the lead striker’s role from Robbie Keane seamlessly, only for injury to require him to be substituted in Moldova and miss the trip to Austria. Scored on his last outing but needs more goals added to his game to become the complete striker. Sturdy in Serbia but ineffective at home to Georgia, Long also requires consistency in his performances.
Daryl Murphy: 1 sub appearance.
Last seen in an Ireland jersey heading home a vital equaliser, Murphy’s desire to build on that first goal for his country has been mothballed by injury. Demonstrated at the Euros the scope he can provide in attack and, should fitness return and he get a run for Newcastle, then he’ll be back in the squad by March.
David McGoldrick: 1 sub appearance.
Appeared briefly on his first competitive appearance in Vienna and did nothing to show he was out of place. Gutted to miss out on the Euros squad, the Ipswich Town man could emerge from the supporting cast as the campaign unravels from March.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved