In terms of how the results on Friday and Monday have altered the table in Ireland’s favour, Martin O’Neill couldn’t have written a better script for the September games. We now have a four-point advantage over Scotland going into the crunch month of October, a swing few would have dared to predict before the matches in Faro, Tbilisi, Glasgow and Dublin.
But if there’s much to be cheered by on that score, the same can’t honestly be said about the manner in which the team did its bit to hoist itself up into third spot. In truth, we toiled to get our six points, even while Scotland were doing us the huge favour of suffering back-to-back defeats. We always knew we were going to win against Gibraltar but I thought we really laboured to get that 1-0 victory over Georgia at the Aviva on Monday.
The other negative from the night was the loss of two players for next month’s game against Germany.
Glenn Whelan is an important player for us. We don’t have too many with his experience and, in the second half against Georgia, he had probably one of his best games of this campaign. James McClean too is important for Ireland, showing when he came on the other night that he can have a real impact on a game. Though not always an impact of the most constructive kind, to his and Ireland’s cost.
What was particularly disappointing about the yellow cards is that both were entirely unnecessary. Sure, the decision to penalise Whelan for the foul was harsh but he should know that you don’t carry on arguing with the referee the way he did. And then, with the score 1-0 to us and the ball in their half, there was no need for McClean to make that challenge.
It’s alright being pumped up but you have to engage your brain as well. You’ve got to realise what you’re risking. Martin O’Neill said afterwards that James told him he’d got the ball. Well, maybe he did or maybe he didn’t, but he nearly put the Georgian in Row Z. And he should know by now that those challenges in international football will always get a booking.
Apart from the welcome results in Dublin and Glasgow, the main positive from Monday was a second-half performance at the Aviva which was so much better than what had gone before — not the first time, of course, that an Irish game in this campaign has been a tale of two halves. In the first 45 on Monday we were pedantic, pedestrian, lacking creativity and repeatedly putting in crosses and balls down the centre of the pitch which succeeded only in playing into the hands of Georgia’s big, strong defenders. By contrast, the visitors controlled possession in the first half and, with a bit more belief, could have been dangerous.
Thankfully, we saw a transformed display by Ireland after the break, which I would attribute in large part to Martin O’Neill replacing Robbie Keane with Shane Long. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to see that Robbie is coming to the end of his days in terms of being able to get to the ball first or challenge in behind. Another thing that Long is so much better at doing is pressurising the defence when they’re playing out from the back, which Georgia were trying to do. Robbie hasn’t got the speed or energy to do that any more, so Long’s arrival made a hell of a difference.
On the basis of what we’ve seen across eight games, it’s hard to picture Robbie starting against either Germany or Poland. Apart from against the weakest link, Gibraltar, he has really made very little impact on this campaign. And yet, Martin O’Neill’s dilemma about whether or not to deploy his record striker was perfectly illustrated by that chance which Long failed to convert from McClean’s ball in the second half. Had that been Robbie, I’d have backed him 99% to score.
That’s the way it is with Long — you get power and pace but you also get mistakes in front of goal. But if we’re going to play to our strengths, I think it has to be him starting in the next two games.
Another factor on Monday night which has to be taken into account was how tired the Georgians got. They’d had a very hard game on the Friday followed by a long, arduous journey to Dublin and then very little time in which to recover before they were taking the pitch at the Aviva. So I think they were always going to tire in the second half.
But the game still required that we raise our energy levels and start closing them down, which was what we eventually did, led by Long and Jon Walters up front. Ireland have to play a pressure game and that’s got to start with the front players. The best sides in the world know that. Look at Barcelona when they press the ball — it starts with Messi, Suarez and Neymar chasing after people and, when that happens, the midfielders can get very tight. Give the opposition time on the ball to come out from the back and the midfield has to drop off. But, on Monday night, I felt that when Long came on, in tandem with Walters, we began to deny Georgia space. And because they had that Scotland game and that journey in their legs, they couldn’t cope with this new Irish intensity.
Having said that, they were good defensively, and it was always going to take a bit of magic to open them up. And that’s what Jeff Hendrick came up with. You wouldn’t have expected it from him — more so from Wes Hoolahan or, if he’d come on, Aiden McGeady — but it was the Derby man who produced the goods to unlock what was a stubborn, strong Georgian defence.
Of course, it was Walters who actually turned the ball into the net, underlining how valuable a player he is in the context of the team that we have. He’s not a skillful player, he’s not a player who’ll unlock a defence with his technical ability, but he’s such a determined 100% operator that he does effect games both at club and international level.
In many ways, he’s a Martin O’Neill kind of player. And if ever there was a first pick on O’Neill’s team sheet, you would have to say Walters would be an absolute certainty in the manager’s thinking.
I get the feeling now that O’Neill is going to stick with this diamond system for the rest of the campaign and, while the evidence so far has been mixed to say the least, some continuity is probably preferable to more chopping and changing with just a couple of games to go. The way it worked in the second half — with Robbie Brady and Seamus Coleman supplying the width that’s demanded of them by the system — at least offered the promise of some light at the end of the tunnel.
But whether that’s going to be good enough to get us another point in the next two games — let alone the three required to guarantee a play-off place — remains to be seen, though of course, the Scots could unintentionally save us all the hassle by losing at home to Poland. Some people are still eyeing up that automatic second spot but let’s not get carried away. Germany and Poland are better than us and if — in a worst-case scenario for Ireland — it turns out Scotland get at least four points, out of the Poles and Gibraltar, to our none on the same nights, then we would be out on the head to head, simple as that.
Hopefully that won’t be the case but, while supporters are entitled to enjoy the boost from the last few days and even dream of better ones to come, it’s always important when analysing this Irish team’s prospects not to lose touch with the real world.
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