CARDIFF COUNTDOWN

Gear­ing up for a huge week for O’Neill’s Ire­land dream

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - COLIN YOUNG

THE man­agers of Wales and the Repub­lic of Ire­land will have taken more than a pass­ing glance at Real Madrid’s home clash with Es­panyol in the Bern­abeu last night. Gareth Bale is the difference be­tween Wales or Ire­land chal­leng­ing the FIFA math­e­ma­ti­cians and tak­ing one of their eight play-off places.

His form is ir­rel­e­vant re­ally. Chris Cole­man and Martin O’Neill just need to know if Bale is fit. If Wales’ great­est ever player plays against Ire­land next Mon­day, as long as the ball and Bale are on the pitch, he can win this final World Cup group game in a mo­ment of breath­tak­ing bril­liance.

No one can pre­pare for that but pre­pare they must and it was a busy day for O’Neill and his staff yes­ter­day. The man­ager, Roy Keane, Steve Wal­ford, Steve Guppy, Sea­mus McDon­agh and oth­ers were watch­ing games and Ir­ish­men at Pre­ston, Mid­dles­brough, As­ton Villa and Bournemouth.

These are al­ways a tense cou­ple of days for in­ter­na­tional man­agers but the quandary for O’Neill is that he went into this final pre-qual­i­fy­ing week week­end des­per­ate for the ma­jor­ity of his squad to get game time. But he knows he can­not af­ford any more in­juries or with­drawals, par­tic­u­larly among his reg­u­lars. Fin­gers will be crossed as the Ire­land squad starts to gather in Dublin that key play­ers come through games at Arse­nal, Ever­ton and New­cas­tle to­day and can join up un­scathed with the rest of the squad.

Wales coach Cole­man will have the same anx­i­eties un­til all of his play­ers are checked into the team hotel this evening but is less con­cerned about all of his squad be­ing in action. Seven­teen-year-old Ben Wood­burn made his de­but for Wales last month and reignited their World Cup cam­paign with the win­ner against Aus­tria. He has yet to play for Liver­pool this season.

There have been few ad­di­tions to the Ire­land squad O’Neill took to France last sum­mer and lit­tle sign of re­in­force­ments who will turn them into se­ri­ous Euro 2020 qual­i­fy­ing con­tenders.

That is the hand dealt to O’Neill and there is sym­pa­thy within the FAI over the lim­i­ta­tions of the squad. The 32 play­ers he named on Tues­day are all he has avail­able and the panel has al­ready been re­duced by Kevin Doyle’s sud­den re­tire­ment and James McCarthy’s sen­si­ble de­ci­sion to stay at Ever­ton. The Ire­land man­ager will trim it fur­ther to­day, hop­ing he will make the de­ci­sions, not the medics.

O’Neill and Keane are plan­ning to re­main as the Repub­lic of Ire­land’s man­age­ment team and the un­likely duo, who signed a deal last year to keep them in charge to the end of this World Cup cam­paign, have had ten­ta­tive talks with the FAI over their fu­ture and a pos­si­ble con­tract ex­ten­sion to the end of the Euro 2020 qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign.

The at­ti­tude on both sides is re­laxed, as it was in the run-up to last sum­mer’s Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship fi­nals when it took months to fi­nalise and sign the new deal. O’Neill, in par­tic­u­lar, is keen to get this week out of the way be­fore ei­ther side com­mits.

The FAI be­lieve the pair are still the best option to take the team for­ward, even if the road to Russia ends in Car- diff in eight days. Sources main­tain that O’Neill and Keane are the “ticket to suc­cess”.

The team’s rel­a­tive suc­cess in France last sum­mer and a promis­ing start to the cur­rent cam­paign have per­suaded most in the FAI to con­tinue with O’Neill and Keane at the helm, al­though there are nat­u­rally con­cerns about the fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions of fail­ing to qual­ify for an­other World Cup.

Ire­land have not reached the fi­nals since 2002, when Mick McCarthy was in charge, and it’s thought fail­ure now could cost the As­so­ci­a­tion around €11m in prize money and ad­di­tional ben­e­fits and earn­ings. They would also miss out on sig­nif­i­cant spon­sor­ship deals and campaigns for the sum­mer which could have an im­pact on fi­nanc­ing fu­ture football de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes across the country.

Ire­land made an ex­cel­lent start these qual­i­fiers, win­ning 10 points the first four games, in­clud­ing a draw in Ser­bia and a mem­o­rable win over Aus­tria, who had started the group as the top seeds.

Since then, they have managed just three points from four games and with 13 points after eight games, Ire­land are five behind Ser­bia and a point behind Wales, who reached the semi-fi­nals of Euro 2016. Un­der FIFA’s com­pli­cated qualification sys­tem, one of the nine Euro­pean run­ners-up will miss out, and that could come from Ire­land’s group.

When he left the Aviva last month after Ser­bia’s de­mor­al­is­ing vic­tory, O’Neill was ea­ger to ap­pear op­ti­mistic about Ire­land’s qualification chances, in­sist­ing they will win the final two games. He will carry that jaun­ti­ness through­out the week.

His team must beat Moldova at home on Fri­day night and then win in the Welsh cap­i­tal to se­cure the run­ners-up place in Group D. Ser­bia are ex­pected to win their re­main­ing matches to win the group and se­cure the au­to­matic qual­i­fy­ing place.

O’Neill knows he will face ques­tions about his fu­ture, and after his tetchy TV in­ter­view in Tbil­isi a month ago, his de­meanour across the two games will be scru­ti­nised by fac­tions in the FAI who might now pre­fer a new voice in charge of the se­nior team.

Al­though in a mi­nor­ity, that dis­sent­ing group could grow if Ire­land fail in Cardiff, and there are those who could re­mind chief ex­ec­u­tive John De­laney of Sam Al­lardyce’s avail­abil­ity. Any po­ten­tial va­cancy could be too early for Mick McCarthy or Chris Hughton. Keane re­mains the ob­vi­ous choice but loaded with po­ten­tial an­tag­o­nism.

At present, former Celtic boss O’Neill, who ap­pointed ex-Ire­land and Manch­ester United cap­tain Keane as his as­sis­tant when he took over four years ago, has no in­ten­tion of walk­ing out on the job if Ire­land fail to reach the qual­i­fy­ing play-offs.

That dis­sent­ing group could grow if Ire­land fail in Cardiff

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