Martin O’Neill is hoping to get by Bosnia and Herzegovina with a little help from his friends – in particular Wales manager Chris Coleman.
Coleman’s Wales qualified for the Euro finals behind Belgium in second place in Group B, four points clear of the Bosnians having drawn 0-0 with them in Cardiff last October before losing 2-0 in the return game in Zenica 12 months later. And O’Neill admitted yesterday that he is very keen to get Coleman’s take on Bosnia’s strong finish to the group after what had been a disappointing start to their qualifying campaign, one which saw manager Safet Susic replaced by current boss Mehmed Bazdarevic after just four games.
“I have spoken to Chris and I’m going to meet up with him early next week,” O’Neill said at his squad announcement. “Any information that he can give me about Bosnia is absolutely welcome. I called him a few days ago and he would be very helpful. His home is not a million miles from where I live myself. We will definitely meet up and it would be nice to see what his thoughts were on Bosnia in terms of the change of attitude from the first game in which they played to the one that Bosnia beat them in and Bosnia needed to win. That information would be great.
“We are now going in to play a resurgent Bosnia — it’s not the side that opened up the campaign and were kind of all over the place. Now, they’ve got a commitment and I am told that they have even sorted out a bonus system. So they’ll be ready for the game and they have their top players available.”
One thing about which O’Neill is already very clear in his own mind is that, irrespective of the opposition, the value of an away goal in the two-legged play-off means a containment policy in Zenica is simply not an option for Ireland.
“If you start looking at containment, honestly you won’t break out of your own half,” he said. “I don’t want it to be like that. I was asked before would you settle for a result where you score a goal — of course. But I don’t think you can start planning that if you’re camped outside your own penalty area.
“With Celtic (in Europe), we always felt that the away goal was very important and, strangely enough, in our run to the UEFA final, we nearly played all our games with the first match at home, just by strange coincidence. But with Henrik Larsson in the side, you always felt that, home and away, you were capable of getting a goal. And that is something you would be really have to be looking at in this game. Whatever we do, whatever we’re trying to do, getting a goal would be of extreme importance.”
In that context, it’s understandable then that the Derryman is sweating on the fitness of Shane Long since, despite Southampton’s encouraging noises about the player’s ongoing recovery from an ankle injury, O’Neill still regards prospects of his availability next month as “touch and go”.
Of course, among other striking options, he could always turn to Ireland’s record-breaking goalscorer.
“I don’t think I can rule out anybody,” the manager said. “Robbie’s still our best scorer. He came on against Poland and I was hoping that something might drop to him. But I have to say that he has been terrific around the place, genuinely terrific.
“He’s the captain of the side and, when he’s not playing in the side, he’s still the first one around the dressing room admonishing or encouraging, as the case may be. I just wish in my time he would have been a few years younger and then there would be no problem having this conversation with you — he’d have been straight in the side.”
Following the controversy surrounding his limited use — at the player’s own request — of Wes Hoolahan in the defeat to Poland, O’Neill knows he could face a similar issue with one or more players in the back to back games against Bosnia. But given the win or bust nature of the tie, would he be prepared to take more risks with player welfare this time?
“Firstly, I wouldn’t force a player that I know is reluctant to play in the game,” he replied.
“I’ve never done that. I’ve never gone and forced somebody who feels ‘look, I’m not really up for this’, particularly one with a muscle injury. Billy Bingham, when he got (Northern Ireland) squads together, he wanted players fit and would be prepared to leave a top quality player out if he didn’t show in the couple of days he was fit to start. Most other managers, like myself, would be prepared to wait until the last minute for a player if it’s a muscle injury that a player is recovering from.
“Like Seamus (Coleman) not being able to play in Gibraltar but being available for the next game, absolutely, I’m fine with that. We even had the Everton physio over to show the work we’re doing.
“If a player says ‘I’m ready to go, I can do this’ then I don’t think I would have any hesitation. The stakes are too big for us. We want to get through.”
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