Back in charge for the second time, Mick McCarthy could not have asked for a more agreeable encounter to kick-off his return as Ireland manager.
McCarthy’s side open their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in Gibraltar as the sides go head-to-head at the Victoria Stadium this evening, kick-off 5pm (Irish time).
Just under four months since coming back to the Ireland set-up, the new manager has not had any friendly matches ahead of the return to competitive football and only got to formally meet and work with his squad this week.
Hardly ideal conditions for a man charged with securing Ireland’s place at next year’s European Championships and offered only one campaign before Stephen Kenny takes over the senior side’s duties.
In essence, McCarthy’s reign could only last eight competitive games as Group D contains just five teams, with Switzerland, Denmark and Georgia the other sides looking to gain one of two automatic places at next summer’s showpiece.
Following a very poor year for the Ireland team in 2018, where four competitive fixtures in the UEFA Nations League yielded little of note, with no victories, two defeats to Wales, including a 4-1 thumping in Cardiff, and a double stalemate with Denmark.
So an opening encounter away in Gibraltar stands to kill the proverbial two birds with the one stone as Ireland can gain a real confidence boost to cure the 2018 hangover, while handing McCarthy an opening victory to put three points on the board ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Georgia.
Following an 11-0 aggregate victory over tonight’s opponents during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, a win for Ireland should prove a mere formality, on paper at least.
Yet the home side are a much-changed outfit since the double-header two years ago with a new manager in charge and a decent injection of youth to add to their experienced crop.
Julio Cesar Ribas has created an organised unit who know their capabilities and limitations and the Uruguayan will set up his side accordingly with the main intention of limiting Ireland’s goalscoring opportunities.
Gone are the cavalier ways of Allen Bula, whose side conceded 54 goals in ten games during the 2016 campaign, and Ribas also has the luxury of naming a couple of players who could seize on an opportunity should one present itself.
Tjay De Barr has emerged as a real prospect over the past 12 months and his elevation from the Under-21 side has benefitted the senior side.
De Barr has recently signed for Spanish side Real Oviedo and will join up with his new club in the summer, while Ethan Britto, Louis Annesley and Jamie Coombes are other young players who have improved the side.
Gibraltar’s confidence may be a little optimistic, yet their recent form has certainly given the Iberian side reasons to be cheerful following a decent UEFA Nations League campaign.
Beating Armenia, complete with star midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, is a clear sign of an improving side under Ribas’ guidance, while they also enjoyed a home victory against Liechtenstein.
So it was no wonder that Ireland manager Mick McCarthy offered the adequate amount of respect to tonight’s opponents as he spoke at Friday’s press conference, while also citing Scotland’s shock defeat to Kazakhstan and recent FA Cup results.
But not only are this Ireland side of a much higher calibre than their opponents, they are also out to put in a performance to hand the new manager a winning start.
Not even the gale-force winds that are expected to blow ahead of, and perhaps throughout the game, are enough to blow this Ireland side off course from starting with a victory.
By his own admission, McCarthy is sick of talking since taking over the job and wants his football and philosophy to be put into practice in his first game back.
Much has been spoken about the formation that McCarthy will opt for as well as the style of football that the new man will bring.
But the only thing that McCarthy would offer on that front is that he wanted to create winning football, and one major aspect of that is creating more chances in the final third of the pitch.
The manager spoke of Terry Connor doing a session with the side on Wednesday to address that matter, with the squad getting the feedback from the management later that evening.
McCarthy’s hands-on approach in training appears to be a very welcome addition to Ireland sessions and it certainly adds to the meticulous nature of the new man in charge in preparing for the game.
There will be continuity of sorts from the previous regime as the manager confirmed that Seamus Coleman would start and the Everton defender would captain the side.
Other than that, McCarthy just confirmed that the team would know who was starting on the eve of the game, but was not willing to divulge much else on that front.
There was a mention for three injured players, Alan Browne, Callum O’Dowda and Ronan Curtis, who McCarthy said were very much in his plans going into the game.
Does that mean that the manager will look for like-for-like replacements in his starting XI?
Jack Byrne was a late addition to the squad and was brought in to replace the aforementioned O’Dowda.
Could the Shamrock Rovers man get the nod to start against Gibraltar?
McCarthy has been impressed with the former Man City midfielder in training this week, added to the fact that Byrne’s wonder-goal at Tallaght Stadium is still fresh in the memory.
The goalkeeping question is a very interesting one with two candidates in fine form at club level.
With the change of regime, the fact that Darren Randolph has been the number one does not guarantee that McCarthy will give him the jersey.
Keiren Westwood is back to his best at Sheffield Wednesday and may be due a shot at holding down that particular position.
McCarthy is expected to opt for a flat back four and will surely send his captain out in his regular position, while Shane Duffy should marshal the middle of the defence, possibly with John Egan in alongside the Brighton man.
The left-back position is an intriguing one with several options available to the manager, depending on the way he sets out his team.
The natural selection is to play Enda Stevens on the left of the four as his form has been excellent all season with Sheffield United.
Stevens, of course, plays a wing-back role with The Blades, which would also suit in a game against Gibraltar in terms of attacking up the flank.
Matt Doherty is without doubt the form player in the squad and McCarthy will surely start the Wolves man tonight.
The manager just needs to decide where to play the versatile attack-minded defender, who has played in a range of positions for Wolves, including left-back, which might appeal to McCarthy.
James McClean and Robbie Brady have also played in that position, however, the manager hinted that the Burnley man had not started too many games, while McClean may be used further up the flank, especially in O’Dowda’s absence.
There may be no real need for a holding midfielder in a match against Gibraltar, yet the manager will surely avoid going too gung-ho from the opening minute.
Glenn Whelan is back in the squad and you get the impression that McCarthy sees him as key to his game-plan. But with the Georgia game in such close proximity, Whelan may be rested until Tuesday, and either Conor Hourihane or Harry Arter might be asked to sit in or share the responsibility with both midfielders likely to start, likewise Jeff Hendrick
Up front, McCarthy will surely select two players to lead the line, with David McGoldrick and Sean Maguire a good combination to both create and score goals.
Whichever XI starts the game in Gibraltar, McCarthy will surely want a strong element of continuation going into the game on Tuesday night.
And the main concern will be avoidance of fresh injuries or needless bookings that could affect team selection later in the campaign.
Thirty-five years have passed since Ireland beat Malta 8-0 at Dalymount Park in the EURO 1984 qualifiers, and while that record looks likely to remain intact at full-time tonight, expect a real attacking performance from McCarthy’s side and Ireland should have plenty to spare, opening their 2020 campaign with a comprehensive win.
Verdict: Ireland (by three or more)
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