O'Neill needs to find Ireland's identity
Three things to look out for as the Republic of Ireland take on Scotland in a vital Euro 2016 qualifier this weekend:
D-DAY FOR O’NEILL AND KEANE
They were the coaching dream team who would bring Irish soccer back into the big time, the leaders of new generation who could bring ole, ole, ole back into our lives and yet already, after just six competitive matches together, they have reached the point of no return.
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and his unhealthily high profile assistant Roy Keane head into Saturday’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Scotland knowing that nothing less than a victory will keep their hopes of making the trip to the finals in France next summer alive. They will not need to be told that their jobs are also on the line.
Despite the events of the last two weeks, FAI chief John Delaney looks set to be the decision maker when it comes to selecting a head coach for Ireland’s next push to qualify for the World Cup finals and O’Neill appreciates his future in the job he clearly revels in could come to an end as early as next October.
Back in March he told a press briefing:
“If I am a complete negative here and we don’t qualify I will go,” he said. “If I feel we get close to qualifying and I can contribute something, then I will be here.
“The World Cup draw is in July and while we might have two poor results by then, I’d like to think I’d be presiding over the World Cup draw.
“Of course, the game against Scotland is massive for us now and we need to get a positive result, we don’t need to be told that. At the moment, I am thoroughly enjoying this job and I would be happy to continue.”
In essence, O’Neill’s future job prospects with the FAI come down to this game against Scotland. Win and Ireland can push for a third place finish in Group D that will give him a realistic shot of qualifying via a play-off, but a defeat on home soil would fatally wound his image as a potential saviour of the Irish game.
THE IRISH TACTICS
With the euphoria that followed O’Neill’s appointment as Ireland boss has long since subsided and now critics are starting to mount around O’Neill ahead of this date with destiny against his old pal and Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan.
Eamon Dunphy’s calls for him to be sacked for his treatment Wes Hoolahan are as laughable as they are unnecessary, as the idea that the Norwich midfielder has the world class talent to turn Ireland into world-beaters is blatantly ridiculous, but we do need to see an O’Neill side emerging from its shell on Saturday.
Getting the best out of the Everton duo of Aiden McGeady (below) and James McCarthy is a conundrum more than one Ireland manager has failed to solve, while he thorny issue of who should play up front will also be on the agenda against at the Aviva Stadium.
Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick failed to take their chance to shine in last week’s lamentable game against England, while Shane Long has shown himself to be more effective coming off the bench and not as a starter.
Could Jon Walters be used as a battering ram centre-forward to unsettle the Scot? It is one possibility O’Neill must be weighing up and if he does opt to start with Robbie Keane as his lead striker, he knows he must have someone alongside the LA Galaxy striker in a supporting role.
“Can Robbie play up front on his own at the age of 34,” ponders O’Neill. “It might even be difficult for a 28-year-old Robbie to play that role and as the years go on it gets harder.
"Against a team like Germany, you are always going to have less of the ball and it was difficult for him.”
Spreading the play, getting more from our wide players and using the pace of Seamus Coleman as he raids forward from his full-back role is the key to Ireland’s hopes of progressing to Euro 2016. Then we need someone to put the ball in the back of the net.
THE IRISH IDENTITY
While the result is all-important against Scotland, we also need to see O’Neill’s Ireland announce their identity to the world.
Progress has to be made for any manager to retain the support of a nation and up to this point, it is hard to see what the current incumbent in the top job has done to improve the team that flopped so horribly in the final two years of the Giovanni Trapattoni regime.
Okay, so there were signs of improvement in the second half of the Euro 2016 qualifier against Poland in March, but the poor showing in Scotland and the display in the lamentable friendly against England last weekend left the impression that Ireland under O’Neill are stuck in neutral.
“To say Ireland didn’t turn up in Scotland is not fair in my view,” he argues, reflecting on the 1-0 defeat in Glasgow last November. “There was nothing in the game, there were only a few chances in the game and their game came after we took ages to prepare for a corner kick. Set-pieces are deciding games these days and you have to be ready for that.”
Finding attacking verve should be O’Neill’s priority this weekend as aside from the seven goals against the part-timers of Georgia in October, Ireland’s have looked blunt as an attacking force.
The Boys in Green have a chance to confirm they are ready to remerge as a Euro 2016 contender at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. It could also be the day when the dream dies for O’Neill and Keane.