Ire­land still a Long way from end­ing their goal drought

Striker has played 1,170 minutes of foot­ball since he last found the net

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer - EM­MET MALONE

Shane Long’s ad­mis­sion to Martin O’Neill af­ter Fri­day’s game that he “can’t buy a goal” just now is a fair re­flec­tion of the striker’s strug­gles around the area this year, but the prob­lem is hardly lim­ited to the 30 year-old.

Daryl Mur­phy’s early brace against Moldova must have come as a ma­jor relief for the Ir­ish man­age­ment, with the team’s re­mark­ably low re­turn around op­po­si­tion ar­eas hav­ing se­verely hand­i­capped their at­tempt to reach Rus­sia next year.

Rob­bie Keane’s de­par­ture from the in­ter­na­tional scene was suf­fi­ciently drawn out to seem painful at times but it is not hard to see why Gio­vanni Tra­p­at­toni and his suc­ces­sor were quite so desperate to squeeze ev­ery last goal out of the Dubliner.

Jon Walters was a slightly un­likely saviour in the cam­paign to reach France, but the full im­pact of the fail­ure to un­cover a nat­u­ral goalscorer to suc­ceed Keane has been felt this time around, with Long scor­ing just once de­spite be­ing the gen­er­ally undis­puted first choice. Ire­land man­aged just two at home be­fore Daryl Mur­phy tre­bled his en­tire in­ter­na­tional tally over the first 20 minutes of the game the other night.

Long has never been the most prolific, and the Ir­ish­man is rightly val­ued by man­agers for other as­pects of his game. Yet strik­ers do need to score, and he could al­ways pre­vi­ously be re­lied upon to chip in with a few.

Dis­tant mem­ory

When he edged into dou­ble fig­ures in a Premier League sea­son for the first time in 2015/16, the sense that he might have moved up a level was widely seized upon, but that seems like a very dis­tant mem­ory just now, a lit­tle like his cel­e­brated win­ner against Ger­many which was two years ago yes­ter­day.

It is Fe­bru­ary 11th since he last scored for club or coun­try – it was for Southamp­ton, as it hap­pens, the fourth in a 4-0 win over Sun­der­land – and he has played 1,170 minutes of foot­ball be­tween the two teams since then with­out find­ing the net. For Ire­land it is pre­cisely 600 minutes now since he got the opener away to Moldova.

O’Neill ad­mits the striker’s lack of con­fi­dence – ev­i­denced in the three chances he passed up on Fri­day – have left him with a big de­ci­sion to make. The fact that he kept mak­ing runs and got him­self into the po­si­tions to have those chance may be seen as some con­so­la­tion, but it’s a dou­ble-edged sword for the striker who won’t need to be told that he should have con­verted at least one and, quite pos­si­bly, all three of the open­ings.

The man­ager, though, has in­vested pretty heav­ily at this stage in the hope that Long would even­tu­ally come good and it would be quite a time to cut his losses. There are clearly no easy al­ter­na­tives now as he sits down to pick his team for such a huge game.

What makes the sit­u­a­tion more press­ing is that none of the sup­port­ing cast of at­tack­ing play­ers has done much to pro­vide the team with a dig out when it mat­tered this year. James McClean’s fly­ing start to the cam­paign has not been sus­tained, while oth­ers have not con­trib­uted at all in the way that might have been ex­pected.

Aerial threat

Jeff Hen­drick has not added goals to his game in the way that he seemed to have the po­ten­tial to in the wake of Euro 2016, while the ad­di­tion of Shane Duffy’s aerial threat has made Ire­land look more dan­ger­ous around at set-pieces but only de­liv­ered one goal di­rectly. Rob­bie Brady has not even man­aged that in this cam­paign.

With Jon Walters ab­sent and Kevin Doyle now gone, O’Neill has the hugely un­proven op­tions of Sean Maguire, Scott Ho­gan and Ai­den O’Brien. O’Neill has made a couple of in­spired calls in terms of team se­lec­tions when his team has needed a very big win but start­ing one of those on Mon­day would be as big a de­ci­sion as he has made since tak­ing on this job.

What­ever he does the de­fence will pre­sum­ably have to hold firm be­cause the re­cent his­tory of this team strongly sug­gests that if they are go­ing to get the win they need in this game they will have to keep a clean sheet. The most mem­o­rable wins – Ger­many, Italy, and Aus­tria – have all been by a goal to nil with only the only real ex­cep­tion be­ing the home de­feat of Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina, when the vis­i­tors needed to win be­cause of the ear­lier 1-1 draw.

Wales, as things stand, ap­pear to need one them­selves tonight, and they have only been kept score­less in two com­pet­i­tive games over the last two years. Once was by Por­tu­gal in the semi-fi­nal of the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship. The other, of course, was by Ire­land in March.

There is then the ba­sis for hope, per­haps even some op­ti­mism for Ire­land’s trav­el­ling sup­port­ers head­ing into this game but it is still no sur­prise that the book­ies have O’Neill’s men looking slightly like long shots.

O’Neill ad­mits that the striker’s lack of con­fi­dence – ev­i­denced in the three chances he passed up on Fri­day – have left him with a big de­ci­sion to make

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