Stephen Hunt

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - STEPHEN HUNT

It is very dif­fi­cult to get into Martin O’Neill’s head and pre­dict his teams, but one thing I do know is he picks teams to win the next match, not on the ba­sis of the pre­vi­ous per­for­mance.

LIKE the Ire­land man­ager, Martin O’Neill, I have said all along that I thought this World Cup group would come down to the fi­nal game in Cardiff. And like Martin, I be­lieve we can win to­mor­row and reach the play-offs.

I am back­ing this team on the ba­sis of what they have been through un­der the man­ager al­ready. They have pro­duced big mo­ments and big re­sults in big games, and they are more than ca­pa­ble of go­ing to Cardiff and get­ting the win needed to keep the dream of go­ing to Rus­sia alive.

We cer­tainly travel to Wales in good shape af­ter a com­pe­tent and con­fi­dent win over Moldova in the Aviva on Fri­day night. The first-half per­for­mance was ar­guably our best since the Eu­ros and al­though the op­po­si­tion was ob­vi­ously not as strong as oth­ers in the group, we still had to get the job done.

It was a good night for the team. There was a good flow to our play and a mix­ture of pass­ing from be­ing direct with the front two, to keep­ing pos­ses­sion. And we had very good width from the two full-backs, Cyrus Christie and Stephen Ward, from the di­a­mond shape we played.

Both teams were happy to shut up shop in the sec­ond half and if there was one slight com­plaint it was that Ire­land should — and could — have scored more goals. But it is dif­fi­cult some­times when the game is in the bank and has been won so early on.

Al­though you could tell O’Neill was frus­trated by as­pects of the sec­ond half, and the in­abil­ity to get a third goal against in­fe­rior op­po­si­tion to kill them off com­pletely, play­ers are very good at man­ag­ing a game when they are two-up like that. They know how to play at three-quar­ter pace and pre­serve en­ergy, and no doubt a few will have started to think about sav­ing their legs with to­mor­row night in mind. Once Ire­land went two-up it is nat­u­ral play­ers had to­mor­row’s show­down in the back of their minds.

Rob­bie Brady and James McClean will re­turn from sus­pen­sion, and, af­ter lis­ten­ing to the man­ager af­ter the game, it seems likely the pair will come straight back into the team. The ques­tion is where?

It is very dif­fi­cult to get into O’Neill’s head and pre­dict his teams but one thing I do know is that he picks teams to win the next match, not on the ba­sis of the pre­vi­ous per­for­mance. Stephen Ward was ex­cep­tional in the first half on Fri­day and is ar­guably Ire­land’s player of the year with his per­for­mances for club and coun­try. It would be very harsh to leave him out in Cardiff.

So per­haps Brady will come into the hole as the Num­ber 10 for Wes Hoola­han, and McClean re­turn on the wing, which is his best po­si­tion. We will need an im­pact from the bench and it just might be, af­ter play­ing for more than 75 min­utes against Moldova, that Wes will be that player.

Tac­ti­cally, I am sure we will stick with the di­a­mond, with the two up front, Daryl Mur­phy and Shane Long, keep­ing their places in the start­ing XI, and Sean Maguire on the bench, and also ready to make an im­pact if needed.

Mur­phy will ob­vi­ously be de­lighted with his con­tri­bu­tion against Moldova, and it would be un­usual for a striker to lose his place af­ter scor­ing two goals. As a striker, you ex­pect to start with a brace to your name, but noth­ing is cer­tain with O’Neill. Mur­phy knows that.

This is a test of char­ac­ter for Shane Long. The pos­i­tive thing is that he will not hide. I heard Alan Shearer say last week that the worst thing that can hap­pen to a striker is when he starts to hide in matches, but there is no dan­ger of that hap­pen­ing with Shane.

He will be very frus­trated by his lack of goals so far and he knows he could have had a hat-trick on Fri­day night. But it was one of those nights when he just didn’t have any luck. What summed Shane up to me was the big smile and hug he gave Sean Maguire when he came on for him for the last ten min­utes. For all his wor­ries and frus­tra­tions at not scor­ing, all Shane was both­ered about was Sean go­ing on and en­joy­ing his Ire­land de­but.

And Maguire will have been on such a high af­ter the game, even with just ten min­utes un­der his belt. He jumped into the cen­tre-half, kept pos­ses­sion, made a nui­sance of him­self around the box, and looked like he en­joyed him­self. No doubt he was flat as a pan­cake on the squad’s day off yes­ter­day but I am sure he will be ready to go again to­mor­row.

So this is it. It feels like a Premier League or Cham­pi­onship lo­cal derby with every­thing to play for. And, as I have said all along, we go to Cardiff with a great chance of beat­ing them. If any­thing, it suits us play­ing at the smaller Cardiff City Sta­dium, rather than a big ground with a big pitch.

There will be a great at­mos­phere, al­beit a hos­tile one, and I just hope there is no nas­ti­ness or con­tro­versy and we don’t do any­thing silly in the build-up to wind them up. If any man­ager is ca­pa­ble of get­ting his team fired up, it is Chris Cole­man, so I hope we don’t give him any more am­mu­ni­tion than he al­ready has.

Of course Gareth Bale is go­ing to be missed by Wales but in­di­vid­u­als don’t win you games; teams do. Wales are un­der pres­sure at home, all the ex­pec­ta­tion is on them and re­al­is­ti­cally they also have to win it to reach the play-offs. It means both teams have to go for it, and it should be a great game. May the best team win, and may it be Ire­land.

This is a test of char­ac­ter for Shane Long . . . but there is no dan­ger of him go­ing into hid­ing

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