With all the talk of Gareth Bale and Ireland’s injury crisis, it would be easy to overlook the fact that Ireland are the group leaders ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Wales at the Aviva Stadium, kick-off 7:45pm.
Ireland come into the game on the back of a four-game unbeaten run, with ten points from a possible 12.
And while Martin O’Neill has always maintained that campaigns are decided on home form, impressively, Ireland already have two away victories and a valuable point earned in Serbia.
But that near-perfect start will not distract the manager, who would have targeted a maximum return from all five home games at the start of the campaign.
And despite the fact that tonight’s opponents got to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and are led by one of the best players in world football, you still get the feeling that nothing has changed in the mind of the Ireland manager.
Victory is expected.
Granted, preparations have been far from ideal as several key players were forced to withdraw through injury, including the first-choice central defensive partnership, while others arrived to camp carrying knocks from recent club encounters.
But as the week progressed, a sort of stability settled into the squad and with James McCarthy coming through two full training sessions ahead of tonight’s clash, there should still be a very familiar feel to the Ireland starting XI tonight.
The manager appears content to allow the talk of Bale to dominate proceedings as he keeps his mind on the task at hand. And he certainly is not showing any fear of the Bale factor, nor letting his side’s lofty position to allow complacency to sit in.
“I think we have to prove ourselves,” said O’Neill at the pre-match press conference. “Every single game that you play, you have to go and prove yourself.
“We have some results…we have some points on the board but we have to go and prove ourselves again.”
And while the manager and his side should be brimming with confidence following the victory in Vienna, O’Neill is content to stay in the moment and take one game at a time.
“I think the players are confident. We have ten points on the board. Three of those games have been away from home. Naturally we are going into the game with confidence…”
“But there is a distance to go.”
In-form McGeady can make impact from bench
Just when it appeared that Aiden McGeady’s international career was beginning to peter out, the Preston North End winger has thrown himself back into contention for a starting place in O’Neill’s side.
The former Celtic man is thriving in an attack-minded club side and McGeady appears to have his swagger back, which will be very well received on the international front as the manager has always been a big fan of the wing wizard.
O’Neill is unlikely to start McGeady as Jon Walters and James McClean are both expected to get the nod ahead of him, however, the manager hinted that he will have a role to play at some stage.
“Because of the games he’s getting on a regular basis, he looks much fitter. All of those things will be important at some stage or other during the course of the game,” said O’Neill on Thursday.
Experienced defence can handle attacking threat
O’Neill’s usual left-back dilemma has been taken out of his hands as a result of Robbie Brady’s suspension, which will more than likely hand the jersey to Burnley team-mate Stephen Ward.
The Dubliner has always performed well in that role under the O’Neill regime and with the real threat of Gareth Bale to consider, it might prove a blessing in disguise to have a more natural defender in that position.
Of course, the central defensive partnership of Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy is absent, though there is no real concern here for the Ireland manager as Richard Keogh and John O’Shea will slot right in there and again, perhaps the experienced style that will accompany that pairing may result in better discipline and organisation against this attack-minded Wales side.
Thankfully, Seamus Coleman shook off a slight knock earlier in the week and with the captain sitting in amongst the aforementioned trio, the Ireland back four should not be fazed.
Impossible to replace Wes Hoolahan?
There really is no disputing that Ireland will miss the ever-influential Wes Hoolahan for this World Cup qualifier.
The Norwich man is such a natural fit for sitting in that hole between front man and midfield in this Ireland team, especially at Lansdowne Road, and it will be really interesting to see what the manager opts for in his attacking formation.
O’Neill could revert to an old-school 4-4-2 and push Walters up alongside Shane Long or perhaps may be tempted to use Jeff Hendrick in that number 10 role.
Hendrick could have a tendency to drop too deep in such a role, while McGeady was trialled there in Germany during the last campaign but failed to influence.
The only other player who could possibly fill the role is Callum O’Dowda who has played through the middle on occasion but again it would be a huge gamble in such an important game.
O’Neill could also be tempted to return to the tactics that helped see off Italy at the Euros where he deployed a 4-1-3-2 formation, which would at least solve the number 10 position.
Emotion to run high for McClean
Having witnessed McClean grab the winning goal away in Vienna back in November, you would imagine that the Derry man could not possibly be more charged with emotion after he slammed that ball home to decide the game.
But a completely different type of sentiment will possess the midfielder this week as he deals with the loss of his former team-mate Ryan McBride who died tragically on Sunday.
The manager is not worried about McClean’s mental state as he said that: “James plays with emotion anyway. If there’s anybody you can talk about wearing his heart on his sleeve, that’s exactly it.”
The West Brom man will be anxious to put in a fitting performance for the people of his home town who have endured a particularly difficult week, and if his recent performances in the green jersey are anything to go by, they will no doubt be very proud of McClean tonight who will wear the number five jersey as a mark of respect for McBride.
Expect an attack-minded Wales XI
Chris Coleman’s side’s unprecedented success in the Euros was built upon his formation utilising three central defenders, which allowed his two wing-backs to push on into midfield.
This formation also allowed his midfield unit to remain quite central and the neat and tidy play in the middle of the park opened up most teams and led to plenty of chances.
Northern Ireland remarkably employed four centre halves across the back in their last-16 clash with Wales and their pacey wide men then forced the Wales wing-backs deep into their own half, which led to a very defensive display from Coleman’s side in the opening 60 minutes of that game.
Wales need to be on the front foot from the start in Dublin, so there is a chance that Coleman might opt for two centre halves, as was the case in their last match with Serbia.
Wales know that Ireland will also employ two wide midfielders so the extra man in the middle of the park could prove very fruitful going forward.
Possible Wales XI: Hennessey; Gunter, Chester, Williams, Taylor; Ledley, Allen, Bale, Ramsey; Robson-Kanu, Vokes.
The Ireland XI
Darren Randolph’s number one jersey is certainly not in doubt, and as mentioned above, the back four of Coleman, O’Shea, Keogh and Ward should sit in front of the West Ham stopper.
With two full training sessions under his belt, McCarthy will most likely start in the middle of the park, while Hendrick, McClean, Walters and Long will surely get the nod as well.
The final selection could surprise, as is commonplace with O’Neill team-sheets and McGeady, O’Dowda or even O’Kane could be worked into whichever formation is decided upon.
But perhaps the best option is to reward David Meyler with a place in the heart of the midfield following his heroics in Vienna where he came on early and made a real impact in the valuable away victory.
Too close to call might be the easy option here with two very well-matched sides going head to head.
On paper, Wales would certainly be ahead in terms of skill and quality, however, Chris Coleman’s side have yet to impress in this campaign and there will certainly be pressure building on the visitors who could be left behind in this group if they are beaten.
Ireland will, no doubt, summon the spirit of the victory in Vienna and will be lifted by a capacity, vociferous home crowd in their quest to push further clear at the top of the table.
The game should explode into life from the opening exchanges and if Ireland manage to cope with the attack-minded Welsh for the opening 20-30 minutes, they can eventually grind out a result and potentially take all three points.
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