Martin hoping to hit his goals
THERE have been 49 goals scored so far in Group D of the World Cup qualifiers.
Ideally, for Martin O’Neill, a Republic of Ireland player will score the 50th and 51st in Tbilisi next Saturday evening (5.0pm Irish time) as two goals should be enough to secure a ninth straight win over Georgia.
Ireland’s 100 per cent record over Georgia is remarkable and it will need to stay that way in Tbilisi as O’Neill prepares for the qualification end-game.
As he prunes back his 38-man squad today for the biggest double-header of his time as Irish manager since the GermanyPoland Euro 2016 qualifying finale, O’Neill is entitled to feel a wee knot in his stomach.
For this engagement in the caldron of the Caucasus is where you need your leaders, the fellahs who take a hit, give a hit, and get on with things.
He’s lost one, Seamus Coleman (broken leg) and may be without Jon Walters, who has an ankle problem, and Jeff Hendrick, who both miss Burnley’s game at Spurs today.
Of all the players available to him, O’Neill would sleep easier before battle knowing those two were in his first XI.
At this advanced stage of the campaign, O’Neill believes three wins may be sufficient to edge out Serbia for top spot in Group D and book a direct route to the finals.
But he can’t be certain as twists and turns are inevitable in the coming weeks in one of the tightest qualifying groups across Europe although it will be a major surprise if the Serbs slip up at home to whipping boys Moldova next Saturday.
Ultimately, goal difference could be the final arbiter between qualification and the November playoffs which partially explains O’Neill’s pursuit of Aston Villa striker Scott Hogan.
Any one of four teams can still qualify automatically, with Serbia and Ireland holding the whip hand on 12 points apiece, four more than Wales and Austria.
The latter two are clinging on at the rear of the peloton and a positive result next Saturday in Cardiff will spell curtains for one of them, while a draw would be of little use.
As top seeds, and semi-finalists at Euro 2016, Wales have under-performed with a slew of draws. They desperately need a fast finish.
On Friday, O’Neill will have noted the return of Gareth Bale and Neil Taylor to the Wales squad, in addition to the elevation of Ethan Ampadu, a 16-year-old prodigy recently signed by Chelsea from Exeter City. Ampadu appears to have slipped through the Irish net as his father, Kwame, who has an Irish mother, grew up in Dublin where he played for Belvedere YC and later the Irish U21s. For a manager who increasingly relies on players born outside the island of Ireland, the loss of Ampadu will sting O’Neill, especially if the youngster is a hit with Wales. That’s not something O’Neill can worry about rnow. His focus is on the next game, nothing more as Ireland seek to regain the winning thread after successive draws in Dublin. Under O’Neill, Ireland’s record on the road in qualifiers has been admirable with five wins in nine competitive games. The first of those came in Georgia three years ago where Aiden McGeady’s last-gasp winner signaled the ideal start for the new manager.
Since then, there have been further late goals against Germany, Poland, Italy, Serbia and Austria, which either turned losses into defeats or draws into wins.
The potential rewards for staying positive and being brave, right to the end, will be rammed home by O’Neill next Saturday where a rejuvenated McGeady may come back into the equation for selection on the right flank should Walters miss out.
Georgia may not have won a Group D qualifier but they are a hard-nut to crack and were only beaten by a Coleman goal in Dublin. Coach Vladimir Weiss has overseen a revival with three wins and five draws in 14 games in charge.
In Jano Ananidze, they possess a creative schemer who helped Spartak Moscow qualify for this season’s Champions League.
But the sum of the artisan Irish parts, which has gathered seven points out of nine on the road against Serbia, Moldova and Austria should be capable of getting the deal done.
Robbie Brady is due a big game, McGeady is buzzing again and O’Neill has Shane Long and Daryl Murphy to get on the end of crosses and free kicks should Walters miss out. For the moment Serbia can wait. O’Neill only has Georgia on his mind.
HERO: Skipper Seamus Coleman scored the crucial goal against Georgia last time
PLANS: Ireland boss Martin O’Neill