It is not too often that the Irish football media can reach agreement; especially on the eve of a game of such importance as Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium.

But there certainly seems to be a common consensus ahead of this must-win game for Ireland that Martin O’Neill’s starting XI remains anyone’s guess.

The manager will keep the nation, and the team, by all accounts, wondering up until an hour before kick-off, so it will be just as RTÉ’s live television coverage begins at 4pm that we will find out who will line out for this vital encounter with Gordon Strachan’s Scotland.

Whether or not the team gets told at such a late stage in proceedings is a debate for another day, but O’Neill’s eventual selection will be predicted by few and will, as always, instantly divide opinion.

The manager has yet to find his best side and is still searching for a complete performance with the Group D campaign already starting to reach the critical stage.

This is the life of a modern international football manager at work and when injuries and suspensions are added to limited availability and a sparse fixture schedule, getting it right can prove a very tough task indeed.

O’Neill has surprised in virtually every competitive fixture throughout his short tenure as Ireland boss, whether through selection or positional choices.

For example, David Meyler and Robbie Brady filling the full-back roles on various occasions, Darron Gibson and Jeff Hendrick matched in an unlikely alliance for that ill-fated match in Glasgow, or Aiden McGeady’s ‘number 10’ role for the away trip to Germany.

But perhaps some semblance of predictability is starting to creep its way into this Ireland XI, and while the overall starting selection remains as clear as mud, just a day out from such a vital encounter, the spine of the team is finally starting to form an encouraging union.

The manager made a big call, and another that many would have put in the surprising category, when he handed Shay Given the number one jersey ahead of the Poland game.

David Forde had done little wrong in the Ireland goal, but the myth of Given was always going to put pressure on the Millwall man, and once the Aston Villa keeper got a bit of first team action, combined with the New Den Lions getting mauled every week en route to relegation from the Championship, the manager took action.

O’Neill also seems to have settled on a central defensive partnership with John O’Shea and Marc Wilson matched up, albeit with very few other viable options to choose from.

Seamus Coleman’s was the one position on the field that was never in doubt and the manager appears to have stumbled on his future left back with Robbie Brady taking a crash course in defending over the past 12 months to complement his excellent attacking prowess and undoubted dead-ball expertise.

Glenn Whelan has been playing a role in front of the Ireland defence for successive international campaigns and despite the huge amounts of criticisms that accompany the mention of the Stoke man’s name, an entire generation of Ireland midfielder players have been unable to shift the Dubliner from the all-important role in front of the back four.

James McCarthy is another who has come in for criticism for his international performances, but thankfully the manager sees the value and quality of a player who is improving with every appearance in the Ireland green.

McCarthy has had a tough year on the injury front but has shown fine club form at Everton in the latter stages of the season, which should have many of the top sides attempting to lure him from Goodison Park this summer.

The aforementioned McGeady is another who appears to be an automatic first choice for the manager but the remaining places, combined with the tricky winger’s actual role, are causing all the debate in these final days.

Does McGeady play on the left or right? If he plays left, James McClean cannot start. If Walters starts does he lead the line or play out right? Is Robbie too old? Is Robbie fit? Does Shane Long start? Can he lead the line on his own?

And what about Wes?

The Ireland manager must rue the day that he claimed Wes Hoolahan was not able to be effective in away fixtures but might be able to do a job at home.

But O’Neill, to his credit, was true to his word and started Hoolahan in the last home qualifier even if it took 40 minutes and a Poland goal before Ireland started to see the capabilities of the Norwich man, which led to the best 45 minutes of O’Neill’s tenure, that second-half performance at Lansdowne.

One of O’Neill’s easiest decisions for this clash with Scotland is surely to leave Keane on the bench, to be used late in the game should a goal be required – and this Ireland team have a propensity for needing late, late goals.

Of course, Keane is streets ahead of any Irish striker when it comes to goalscoring prowess in the green shirt, but the simple fact of the matter is that the LA Galaxy man is not match fit for a game of such magnitude.

Will Keane’s misfortune open the door for Hoolahan to start a second consecutive qualifier and will it lead to a possible new dynamic up front with the lively Long employed to make the runs for the former Shelbourne man to feed?

McClean is probably the likely loser in such a scenario with Walters utilised on the right flank to bolster the midfield, which is where the main battle will be lost or won.

O’Neill’s counterpart appears to have no such trouble with his team selection as Strachan has consistently picked from the same squad for a few years now and the core of the team has remained unchanged throughout this campaign.

Strachan will field nine or ten of the starting XI that beat Ireland in November and they will largely play the same way, with the same confidence and the same ambition – there are no home and away players in this Scotland team.

This Scotland side possess many of the traits that successful Ireland teams have shown in the past, where the team is better than the sum of its parts with several players putting in performances that are rarely seen when lining out for their respective clubs.

Strachan’s side have nothing to lose, having already secured three points against Ireland in the home fixture so they will come looking for the win but will be more than happy to leave with a point.

But this is no reason for Ireland to fear Scotland, just as they should not have feared them at Celtic Park in November.And this time, the Ireland starting XI should be a lot better equipped than the side that took the field at Parkhead.

Steven Naismith was key for Scotland in the last game but again, the Irish will be much more aware of his influence as well as the roaming Shaun Maloney, who grabbed the all-important goal in that first game.

And there is no way in the footballing world that Ikechi Anya can get the better of Coleman in two consecutive matches, while Scotland’s defensive frailties should also be exposed against a more attacking Ireland side.

Continuity is not a word that sits well with the spread-out fixture list of the international football calendar, but if ever Ireland needed to start where they left off in their last competitive fixture this is it.

The second-half performance at the Aviva against a decent Poland side shows that this Ireland team does actually possess the players, talent and spirit to cause problems for all of their Group D rivals.

And if that spirit can be summoned from the first whistle at 5pm, there is no reason that Ireland cannot beat this overachieving Scotland side, and beat them with a bit to spare as well.

Verdict: Ireland to win

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