The brief was clear and simple. Ireland’s games against Gibraltar and Georgia had to yield six points ahead of the final qualifying games against Germany and Poland in October.
Before Friday, maximum points were required to hopefully remain in contention, but now the full complement of points from the two games will mean that Ireland will go into the final fixtures in third place and with strong play-off ambitions.
Scotland’s defeat in Georgia is what has pushed Martin O’Neill’s side into that play-off position, but it has also sent a timely reminder that tonight’s EURO 2016 qualifier is far from a foregone conclusion – or at least it should have.
Ireland started the weekend off with a win but it was far from convincing as they eventually stumbled past Gibraltar 4-0 on the Algarve. But little should really be taken from that performance – as would have been the same with a 10-0 victory against the Group D whipping boys – such is the disparity in quality between the two teams.
Three points, no injuries and no suspensions was all that was required from the trip to Portugal and O’Neill’s charges ticked all three boxes.
O’Neill would have been preparing for tonight’s clash long before a ball was kicked against Gibraltar, despite his pseudo concern about the improving Iberian side, and team selection for Monday would have dictated a large part of the eleven that took to the pitch on Friday.
As a result, Seamus Coleman was not risked due to a hamstring strain, and possibly the fact that he was one yellow card away from a suspension. The same probably applied to James McClean, who is fond of a mistimed tackle, no matter the opposition or occasion.
And while O’Neill would surely have the XI in mind for tonight’s game, Georgia’s performance against Scotland will certainly have given him food for thought over the long weekend.
Victory over Scotland aside, Georgia’s overall performance will have reminded the Ireland boss of the dangers that the opposition possess ahead of this must-win encounter.
Scotland’s defeat does not change the fact that this is a must-win game for O’Neill’s side; it just means that a play-off place is now in Ireland’s own hands.
O’Neill’s team are about as easy to predict as the Irish weather forecast, however, he is starting to develop a core set of players who are integral to his match philosophy.
Shay Given’s return has cemented his number one selection and while the Ireland keeper finished the season playing regular club football, his summer move to Stoke has seen him return to the role of spectator as he is second choice behind Jack Butland.
The back four are also starting to become an O’Neill unit with Coleman, John O’Shea, Marc Wilson and Robbie Brady becoming the back four of choice. Wilson is another who has not played much first-team football this season and Ciaran Clark put himself in contention following a decent display on Friday, adding an attacking edge, but O’Neill should stick with the Stoke centre-half, partnering O’Shea.
Glenn Whelan will start alongside James McCarthy, while Aiden McGeady’s two goals in Tbilisi will surely play on the manager’s mind as he picks the side.
So with McGeady most likely filling the right side, the eternal question again needs to be asked.
What about Robbie?
Just when it looked like the record goalscorer was becoming an impact player, resigned to start from the bench, Keane’s form Stateside and his two-goal haul on Friday night again emphasise the importance of someone who can put the ball in the back of the net.
Shane Long was sprung off the bench on Friday and while he showed his finishing might be improving with a well-taken header, it appears clear that the manager is not keen on the striker starting games.
Four players are likely to contest the three remaining places with a range of permutations available depending on O’Neill’s choices between Keane, Wes Hoolahan, McClean and Jonathan Walters.
McClean was rested on Friday, due to his potential suspension, and the West Brom winger impressed on the left flank when he came on against Poland, working well with Brady.
Georgia’s performance against Scotland may inadvertently decide O’Neill’s striking dilemma as target man Steven Fletcher was kept very quiet by two strong and commanding centre-halves.
Picking Walters to lead the line would essentially play into Georgia’s hands, so perhaps we might see a role for both Hoolahan and Keane.
Both players’ movement – Keane inside the box and Hoolahan’s outside – would cause problems for the big unit who were troubled by the lively Steven Naismith on Friday, getting pulled out of position on occasion.
And while O’Neill’s attacking options could determine whether Ireland can get the required goals to win the game, his regular central midfielders and defenders will need to be well drilled on the dangers that this Georgia team possess.
The midfield three of Jaba Kankava, Jano Ananidze and Tornike Okriashvili are a decent ball-playing unit, while Valeri Kazaishvili is forever cutting in off the right to link with the trio and bring the big centre-forward Levan Mchedlidze into play.
Okriashvili’s goalscoring exploits are well known, following that quality strike that almost cost Ireland two points in Tbilisi, while Kazaishvili’s effort against Scotland needed a huge amount of composure and skill to execute.
Striker Mchedlidze is a real handful as he leads the line impeccably, competing in the aerial battles, while holding the ball up for the arriving midfielders. The Empoli striker also possesses a decent left foot and he is fond of a shot from distance.
Georgia tend to play the ball through the middle, while they are also dangerous attacking at will down the right flank, but there are also weaknesses in the team that can be exploited by O’Neill’s men.
Georgia’s left flank is poor and with a fit-again Coleman linking with the jinking movement of McGeady, Ireland’s attacking options on the right could create the required chances.
Georgia’s back four, as mentioned, can often be pulled out of position, while the defensive midfield work is often left to captain Kankava.
So an attack-minded Ireland, with Hoolahan pulling the strings in the number 10 role can certainly cause problems and create chances.
Ireland need someone in that attacking unit to take these chances when they come along.
And there are 67 good reasons for O’Neill to put his trust in Ireland’s record goalscorer.
This game is made for Robbie Keane. And the Ireland talisman will deliver.