Martin hop­ing to hit his goals

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - THE TITLE - By Philip Quinn

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

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