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