Robbie Keane can still have an impact as a sub but it would be better for Shane Long or Jon Walters to start up front at Celtic Park tonight. Martin O’Neill may be ready to make that big call.
Tonight’s match in Glasgow will tell us a lot about how far these two teams have come under their respective managers.
Gordon Strachan has done a really fine job with Scotland, getting them to play good football with a confidence and a belief that had all but disappeared over previous campaigns. They now have hope and maybe even an expectation of qualifying, especially with the new format. But, of course, that only makes tonight even more of an acid test for Gordon and his team.
For Ireland, Martin O’Neill has certainly got results which have delighted people and which have also delivered a very healthy points tally of seven from nine, including a difficult first match away to Georgia and then that point in Germany which, obviously, was a real boost.
But I still think that, of the two teams, Scotland have played the better football. In that respect, Scotland probably haven’t got the points on the board they deserve and Ireland probably have a tally they don’t warrant.
You can write off the Gibraltar match completely because everybody’s going to murder them. In the other two games, we got a win in Georgia with a very late goal and we’ve rescued the match in Germany with an injury-time winner.
The Georgia match was disappointing in that we didn’t control the game. We didn’t build on the opening goal and we got a little bit loose in possession, particularly in the second half.
In the end, it was a real rescue job by Aiden McGeady and, if he hadn’t scored that goal, you would have had to be really critical of our performance on the night.
I know that after the game against Germany that the RTÉ panel got plenty of stick, but we were calling it as we saw it. I don’t think any of us want to cosy up to public or press opinion. And I still believe it’s right to say that, while Ireland defended well from the start, they did not play well in any creative sense until the changes were made.
Eamon Dunphy made a comment about Giovanni Trapattoni’s and O’Neill’s tactics being very similar, and that’s absolutely right.
Anybody who would argue with that doesn’t know anything about football.
But then, like Trapattoni used to say — and he proved this in his first two qualifying campaigns — it’s the results that count. On that front, O’Neill has started well but, let’s be straight: if we do not make it to France when 24 teams are going to qualify, it will be a bitter pill to swallow.
For me, the really big decision Martin has to make tonight is whether Robbie Keane starts. I saw on television Robbie playing for LA Galaxy when they beat Real Salt Lake 5-0 on Sunday night, and he played really well, scoring one and setting up three.
But you have to ask: Is that the league from which you can extract a player and put him into international football?
Don’t get me wrong, Robbie is a very useful player but I’m not sure if he merits a starting place when, in the games against Germany and Georgia, he hardly contributed. He still has a part to play but his form in our away games indicates he no longer has the speed or power against quicker or stronger opponents. He can still be a useful substitute if we need a goal but the time has come to play Shane Long or Jon Walters as the front man. And I think O’Neill will make that hard call.
Shane’s two goals last weekend will have been good for his confidence after a difficult start at Southampton. We all know he’s got the strength and pace to trouble defences. True, he’s not the finisher that Robbie Keane is — and that’s the dilemma that Martin has. But having seen how Robbie played in the previous two away games, I’d be inclined to start with either Long or Walters tonight.
Confirmation that James McCarthy will miss out is a serious blow but, having his Everton team-mate Seamus Coleman back is a major boost. Coleman is comfortable on the ball, good in possession and very effective at getting forward. David Meyler had a fine defensive game in Germany but he hardly ever crossed the half-way line. And that was down to the fact we didn’t enjoy the possession to bring him into the game. If you’re going to use Coleman most effectively, you have to have better possession in the middle of the park.
If Glenn Whelan had been fit, Martin would probably have gone with him but I would always have liked to see Darron Gibson starting. When I was assistant to Giovanni with Ireland, I was always advocating he should start Darron because I believed he was the best passer of the ball we had. Giovanni, however, preferred the more defensive midfield pair of Whelan and Keith Andrews — and, of course, the results of the first two campaigns bore out his judgement.
Again, in the absence of McCarthy and also Whelan tonight, I think it’s encouraging to note we actually looked our best when Gibson and Jeff Hendrick were both on the pitch against Germany.
I’d also like to see Aiden McGeady wide right and James McClean wide left, in their natural positions. The McGeady role against Germany, when he played centrally, just didn’t work at all.
Firstly, because he could hardly get on the ball and then, when he did, he seemed a little bit lost. He was much more comfortable in the last 15 or 20 minutes when he went back out wide.
In terms of how Ireland might set up, well, Martin’s a very difficult man to read and to try and second-guess. What we’ve seen is McCarthy play in that No. 10 position, in behind the striker, against Georgia — and that didn’t work. Then it was McGeady against Germany — and that didn’t work. And the player we have who is best suited to play that position, Wes Hoolahan, is now out injured. Not that I would have expected Martin to play him in Glasgow even if he had been fit. But this is a problem for us tonight — we don’t really have that kind of player from midfield who can link up with the striker in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
Despite those reservations, I’m expecting a really good performance from the Irish team, precisely because of the platform they’ve built for themselves with the results so far. They’ll go into the game very confident and believing it’s one they can win. With those points under our belt, we should be going into the game thinking, ‘there’s nothing to be frightened of, let’s take Scotland on’. And the fact that the game is at Celtic Park just adds to the sense the omens are good.
It would mean so much for both Gordon Strachan and O’Neill to qualify for France 2016. It would cement their reputations as excellent managers and give them the chance to show their qualities at the highest managerial level. An Ireland win tonight would take us near to automatic qualification but, under Strachan, as I’ve said, Scotland have improved immensely and should really be up for this one themselves.
Taking all that into consideration, I would be happy with a draw.
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