Christian Eriksen’s absence will give the hosts hope that they can deliver a much-improved display from last year’s mismatch at the Aviva.
IRELAND’S LAST TWO competitive fixtures — 4-1 and 5-1 maulings by Wales and Denmark respectively — would suggest they are firm underdogs for tonight’s Nations League clash at the Aviva Stadium.
11 months on from the November massacre in which the Boys in Green were torn to shreds by a vastly superior Danish outfit in Dublin, thereby seeing their World Cup play-off qualification hopes end in emphatic fashion at the final hurdle, the two sides do battle again.
As James McClean alluded to during the week, even an unexpected win this evening would not make up for the disappointment of underperforming so badly and missing out on Russia 2018 in the process, but it would at least salvage some pride for an Irish side that have been uncharacteristically all too easy to play against in their last two competitive fixtures.
The task has been made slightly less daunting by the absence through a stomach injury of the side’s conductor-in-chief Christian Eriksen. The Tottenham maestro highlighted his world-class status by hitting a majestic hat-trick at the Aviva last year, albeit with the unwitting assistance of some desperate Irish defending and an increasingly open midfield.
Nevertheless, with players of the calibre of Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester), Simon Kjaer (Sevilla), Thomas Delaney (Borussia Dortmund) and Yussuf Poulsen (RB Leipzig) to choose from, even without their best player, the Danes have the luxury of far more gifted individuals to call upon compared with their less illustrious opponents.
Ireland’s palpably inferior technical ability to Europe’s top sides is a point that has been continually made by manager Martin O’Neill during his reign, particularly amid dour displays where the team are forced to make do without the ball for much of the 90 minutes.
The Irish coach returned to this theme last month after the Wales loss, partially blaming the defeat on a lack of squad depth and the absence of several key players through injury, while this week lamenting the unavailability of first-choice players Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, James McCarthy and Stephen Ward.
The inability of a number of squad members to be consistent starters for their clubs is another issue that concerns O’Neill.
“It’s important first of all for someone to be playing in their club team and playing regularly, and to be playing at a high level,” the former Celtic and Leicester City boss said yesterday. “All of those things are very important. We don’t have that luxury of players playing every week, even in the Championship, [so] we have to make adjustments. It would be great if all our players were playing in the big league and playing regularly.”
One player who is playing regularly and at a high level is Wolves’ Matt Doherty. The 26-year-old Dublin-born star was recently voted the Premier League Fans’ Player of the Month and the former Bohs youngster has been highly thought of at Molineux for some time now.
In the absence of captain Seamus Coleman, many fans and pundits have called for Doherty to come into the side. Yet so far, O’Neill has invariably resisted the temptation to select the in-form Wolves player. After Coleman suffered his leg break last year, Cyrus Christie was preferred in defence, and Doherty was a notable absence from the starting XI again in last month’s friendly with Poland.
That most recent snub led the player to suggest in a recent interview with The Sunday Times that his face “doesn’t fit” at the moment, but O’Neill this week moved to deny those claims and offered renewed encouragement to the frustrated star.
A first competitive start for the Dubliner tonight is not beyond the realms of possibility, particularly if O’Neill decides to ditch the 4-4-2 system that was badly exploited in Cardiff and instead opt for the 3-5-2 formation, which he experimented with not for the first time in Wroclaw last month.
Just how drastically O’Neill opts to change personnel from Ireland’s Welsh nightmare will be interesting to see. James McClean is a near-certainty to come back into the team, after recovering from a wrist injury that caused him to miss the Cardiff trip, while another familiar face, Jeff Hendrick, has been confirmed to start the game.
The fallout from the Harry Arter row among countless other mishaps and controversies, coupled with recent poor results, means the management duo once dubbed ‘the dream team’ are under greater pressure than at any other point in their reign, which is due to reach its fifth anniversary next month.
O’Neill and Ireland have often responded well, showing genuine adventure and bold ambition when under the severest of pressure in the past — the four changes to the team for the win-or-bust Euro 2016 clash with Italy and the subsequent dividends these decisions reaped was a prime example of how they can thrive when their backs are to the wall.
With several retirements and a couple of injuries, the Irish team is again expected to have a somewhat unfamiliar look — fringe players such as Callum Robinson, Enda Stevens and Shaun Williams, who all played some part in the Welsh fixture, will feel they have a decent chance of figuring again.
If these changes are implemented and Ireland do manage to pull off an against-the-odds victory, they will be right back in contention, with an Eriksen-inspired Denmark’s 2-0 defeat over Wales last month meaning both of the Boys in Green’s group rivals sit level at the top of the table on three points.
And in the event of an Ireland win, there are no prizes for guessing what the scoreline is most likely to be. The Bosnia play-off aside, all of the team’s biggest scalps of the O’Neill era — Germany, Italy, Austria and Wales — ended in a 1-0 victory.
“In truth, we don’t have anyone who has proved themselves to be a prolific scorer, so it is a difficult one,” O’Neill said during the week.
“Shane [Long] is not that — he hasn’t scored at club level now for quite some considerable time, and of course, that plays with your mind.
“But you have to be very, very strong and think then the next chance that comes along, ‘This is the one that I’m going to take’.
“But I’m hoping that Shane — again, he’s not a regular starter for Southampton, but sometimes at international level for us, I have to maybe push that to the side.”
With Scott Hogan and Sean Maguire having played just 15 minutes of action between them this season owing to injury, Aiden O’Brien and Shane Long having had to settle for spells on the bench for their clubs, and Robinson only making his competitive debut in Cardiff, Ireland’s attacking shortcomings are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. They have managed just 14 goals in the last 13 competitive games, and a more paltry total of nine in 11 if you discount the two fixtures against minnows Moldova.
Down the other end of the field, Shane Duffy is in the form of his life and will go into this game feeling confident having only last week put pen to paper on a new long-term contract with Brighton.
The onus will very much be on the Derry native and the rest of the backline to have an inspirational night, with the Boys in Green likely to make do without the ball for much of the 90 minutes as was the case last November.
Should they alternatively buckle under this pressure, it will be difficult to see a way back for O’Neill, particularly if the setback were to be followed by another bad result on Tuesday against Ryan Giggs’ men.
“I don’t really fear [for my job],” the Irish boss insisted on Tuesday. “There’s always pressure. There’s pressure on managers every single day of the week.”
The 66-year-old manager will hope his team can approach this evening’s encounter with a similar sense of defiance.
Subscribe to our new podcast, Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42, here: