“We have to win the games and the equation is really simple,” was Martin O’Neill’s decisive summation yesterday, as he contemplated Ireland’s World Cup qualifying landscape with two group games to go.
Actually, strictly speaking, the manager is wrong on both counts.
A draw with Moldova and a win in Wales could, in certain highly favourable circumstances, be enough to keep Ireland on track, just one reflection of the fact that, far from being simple, the qualification equation in play all across Europe over the next few days is of such fiendish complexity as to addle the mind of a quantum physicist.
For which reason, O’Neill is right to boil it down to basics, taking it one game and, he hopes, one win at a time, in the belief that six points and a second-place finish will mean at least a play-off place for his team. (And that ‘at least’ is because, whisper it, in the admittedly unlikely event of Serbia doing a Devon Loch in their final two games – away to Austria this evening and at home to Georgia on Monday - either Ireland or Wales could still top the group and claim automatic qualification.
But it’s probably best to follow the manager’s example and concentrate on the visit to Dublin this evening of Moldova, Group D’s bottom club. But even previewing this otherwise straightforward-looking assignment is complicated by the fact that key absentees for Ireland make it even harder than usual to second-guess O’Neill’s team selection.
The loss through injury of Jon Walters and, through suspension, of James McClean and Robbie Brady, leaves the manager weighing up such factors as youth, experience, form, fitness and game-time, as he plots his starting XI for tonight’s match at the Aviva.
“The game is very, very important to us and we want to win and team selection will be pretty vital,” O’Neill said yesterday.
“But team selection is one part of it, then players have to go and play. As I said to the lads yesterday, the game is still about players and hopefully, it will always be.”
My own hunch is that the following players will get the nod for kick-off tonight: Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward, Meyler, McGeady, Hoolahan, Hendrick, Murphy and Long. One possible formation is a midfield diamond which would see David Meyler at the base and Wes Hoolahan at the top, with Aiden McGeady and Jeff Hendrick on either side, and the two full-backs, Cyrus Christie and Stephen Ward, to push forward on the flanks.
There are other formations which could be deployed, of course but, certainly in terms of personnel, it’s a line-up which has the virtue of including most of the of the more established, match-fit players O’Neill has at his disposal while, in my opinion, it’s one which, with Daryl Murphy offering much-needed support to Shane Long – and Wes Hoolahan in behind them pulling the strings – offers Ireland the best hope of converting their superiority over Moldova into goals.
But O’Neill does have other options, not least in the presence in the squad of the uncapped strikers Scott Hogan, Sean Maguire and Aiden O’Brien. There’s a feeling that, of the three, Villa’s Hogan is perhaps the one most likely to get the nod if the manager feels like taking a chance on a fresh face upfront.
“I think they are ready for it,” he said of the untried trio yesterday. “I think if they were called, they will be ready.”
A younger gun the manager could also turn to for attacking width is Callum O’Dowda, whose name, it didn’t go unnoticed, got an unsolicited mention from Roy Keane in a press briefing earlier this week.
The Bristol City man made his competitive debut when coming off the bench in the 3-1 win in Chisinau this time last year but it was a much more recent appearance in the green shirt which O’Neill chose to reference when praising the 22-year-old yesterday.
“I’ve a lot of faith in him,” he said. “I brought him into the squad from the U21s and he’s beginning to flourish now. He’s getting more game time at club level which is very, very important. When he comes in, his little bits of training he does with us, he’s always been impressive. It might tell you something, that when we were trying to look for something against Serbia I did put him on the field of play.
“He has definitely improved. I do think he’s got a really bright future ahead, both at club level, and obviously with us.”
We’ll only learn the final outcome of O’Neill’s deliberations about an hour before the first whistle tonight.
But amid all the mind-bending uncertainty surrounding Ireland’s slim chances of making it to the World Cup finals in Russia, it was a remark Roy Keane made earlier this week which still cuts to the heart of matter as kick off looms.
Having acknowledged the importance of Ireland’s missing players and made the requisite complimentary noises about the opposition, the assistant manager couldn’t help musing aloud: “And you still think, well, if you don’t beat Moldova at home then you shouldn’t be expecting to qualify for too many tournaments.”
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