No more mis­ter nice guys as mo­ment of truth looms large

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - EA­MONN SWEENEY

THE Ire­land-Moldova match’s lack of re­sem­blance to a se­ri­ous in­ter­na­tional fix­ture was il­lus­trated by the amount of times the word ‘nice’ sprang to mind. Wasn’t it nice to see David Meyler get­ting the cap­taincy? Isn’t it nice to see Daryl Mur­phy get­ting a cou­ple of goals? It’s nice to see Cal­lum O’Dowda tak­ing on play­ers ev­ery chance he gets. Wouldn’t it be nice if Shane Long man­aged to get a goal here? It would be nice if Ire­land man­aged to string a cou­ple of passes to­gether in the sec­ond half. It’ll be nice when this bloody game is over.

The ‘n’ word doesn’t nor­mally get used with such fre­quency when you’re watch­ing a com­pet­i­tive in­ter­na­tional game. But Fri­day night’s match was a spe­cial one. It seemed as mean­ing­less a match as Ire­land have ever played, a glo­ri­fied warm-up for the real busi­ness to­mor­row night.

The only way the game could have meant any­thing would have been if Moldova got — or at least threat­ened to get — a re­sult. By the 17 th minute with Ire­land 2-0 up it was clear this wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen. Ac­tu­ally it was never go­ing to hap­pen. Moldova are a team who have now gone two qual­i­fy­ing cam­paigns in a row with­out a sin­gle vic­tory. Aus­tria, Wales and Ser­bia beat them home and away and Ire­land were al­ways go­ing to do the same.

You can’t even ap­ply the usual con­de­scend­ing clichés to the Moldovans. They are not ‘tech­ni­cally gifted’ or ‘hard to break down’ or ‘im­prov­ing in re­cent years.’ They are just, God love them, a bad team.

Though this didn’t stop Ire­land from mak­ing them look handy enough in a sec­ond half which rep­re­sented a kind of football waste­land, a long stretch of fu­til­ity bereft of ei­ther skill or in­ten­sity, the sport­ing equiv­a­lent of men killing time at work in the last few min­utes be­fore the week­end starts.

What poor en­ter­tain­ment Ire­land have pro­vided for the home sup­port in this cam­paign. Two points out of nine against the other de­cent teams in the group, three goals in two games against the min­nows. But even those unim­pres­sive sta­tis­tics don’t fully cap­ture the im­pov­er­ished na­ture of the ex­pe­ri­ence, all those long fal­low spells with Ire­land fail­ing to im­pose a pat­tern on games spin­ning slowly and un­con­trol­lably into the void like Ge­orge Clooney in Grav­ity.

Mur­phy’s two early goals briefly promised some­thing dif­fer­ent, a goal rush which would en­able those of bois­ter­ous dis­po­si­tion to say that this kind of re­sult had to be good for the con­fi­dence of the team go­ing into the Wales match. In re­al­ity, a 6-0 win would have been no more mean­ing­ful than a 2-0 win. What can you take from a game like this? Even our goals re­sulted from the kind of ap­proach, a long throw hoisted into the box, a ball slung in from the bye-line, with which the Welsh de­fence will be most com­fort­able.

Even against Moldova we can’t play that slick pass­ing football O’Neill’s crit­ics in­sist is buried some­where in the Ir­ish team’s foot­balling DNA, its emer­gence baulked by the util­i­tar­ian in­stincts of the man­ager. O’Neill doesn’t be­lieve we can pro­duce that kind of stuff and I’m in­creas­ingly in­clined to think he’s right. A per­for­mance like Ice­land’s ex­tra­or­di­nary 3-0 away vic­tory in Turkey is be­yond us. We’re not that good. Or at least not that kind of good.

Yet should we win to­mor­row none of this will mat­ter. Which will be fair enough be­cause a vic­tory in Cardiff and reach­ing the play-offs at the death would rep­re­sent one of Ir­ish football’s great­est feats and pro­vide us with one of the great na­tional sport­ing nights. So what are the chances?

Not bad. Un­der O’Neill Ire­land have gen­er­ally been at their best when their backs are to the wall. Against Ger­many and Italy and Bos­nia, they got the re­sult when it was ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary to do so. That en­ti­tles the man­ager and the team to our faith. Wales have not been good in this group ei­ther, never re­cap­tur­ing their swash­buck­ling form of Euro 2016 or even of the qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign be­fore that. And that was even be­fore they lost Gareth Bale. Their progress has been a stum­bling one.

But so has ours and there would be a cer­tain poetic jus­tice were the run­ners-up in the group to end up missing out, though this dan­ger seems to have re­ceded slightly over the week­end. It re­mains real enough, how­ever, to en­sure that Wales as well as Ire­land will have to go for a win, some­thing which will suit us.

Cardiff will rep­re­sent the big­gest test of O’Neill’s in­ter­na­tional ca­reer so far. Un­like Italy, Wales have every­thing to play for. Un­like Ger­many, they will not be com­pla­cent. Un­like Bos­nia they will be fac­ing us in a one-off where home ad­van­tage is theirs.

To­mor­row night will be one of those rare mo­ments of truth where both teams learn al­most every­thing they need to know about them­selves. Its re­sem­blance to an old-school FA Cup tie will pose the type of chal­lenge our play­ers are used to. But Wales are cut from the same kind of cloth and Chris Cole­man also has the mem­ory of big chal­lenges over­come to sus­tain him over the next 24 hours.

We shall see what we shall see. But one thing’s for sure. To­mor­row’s match will be the very fur­thest thing from nice.

Wales will have to go for the win too, some­thing which will suit us

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