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Monday 23 October 2017

O'NEILLDELIVERSSHARPREALITYCHECK

Lack of competition limits Ireland's options for Euro 2016 opener in Tb lisi

IT was a stark line from Martin O'Neill designed to lower expectation but it was still a jolt to hear it.

Some players will play against Georgia because he has nobody else.

The context for the comments was Shay Given's return and O'Neill's belief that honest competition never hurt anyone. He was asked whether David Forde should feel unsettled by the Donegal man's second coming.

"Every single time you play you have to prove yourself. Every single game. Maybe after three or four years and you've been established and playing very well can you consider yourself an automatic," said O'Neill.

"That's not to say that we don't have a number of players here who, one way or another, will start against Georgia simply because, one, they are playing well enough and, two, there is not enough competition," he added.

After nine months, a run of friendly games and no doubt, much thought and consideration, O'Neill has reached the same conclusion which Giovanni Trapattoni arrived at verbalised any time he got a chance. We don't have enough players.

There is no profit for O'Neill in raising expectations but this was a sharp slap of reality and even if largely true, not quite what you want to hear in the week which should be about new beginnings and a fresh start.

It's not difficult to work out the positions O'Neill has in mind. Marc Wilson would happily slot into the left-full role if O'Neill didn't need him to partner John O'Shea in defence, a definite problem area.

Without Seamus Coleman, O'Neill would be scratching around for a right-full and like many Ireland managers before him, he is sweating over the fitness of Robbie Keane.

Keane's ability to play at the top level will be a key feature in another qualifying campaign because nobody has emerged to challenge him in any meaningful way.

This time, of course, the unspoken fear is that at some point over the next few years, time will catch up with Keane and the supply of goals from Ireland's record goalscorer will dry up.

SPOILED

While not exactly spoiled for choice in midfield, O'Neill has a full range of options. It's also an area of the squad which is improving and has an age profile which allows plenty of time for that to happen.

So much of what we hope for from O'Neill's Ireland rests on the shoulders of lads like James McCarthy, Coleman and Wilson. The handover from the 2002 generation is all but complete.

Into that set of circumstances walked Shay Given yesterday and as ever, it is hard not to be impressed by his bulk and authority.

Those who wonder about the wisdom of dipping back into the past to solve problems in the future should stop for a second and consider who it is we're dealing with.

Given played a monumental part in helping Ireland qualify for two major tournament, the World Cup in 2002 and Euro 2012 in Poland.

While everyone justifiably credits Richard Dunne for the point won in Moscow this time three years ago, Given was remarkable that night as well and indeed throughout the campaign.

If there is any chance that Ireland could again benefit from the consistent excellence he brought to his work, O'Neill would be a fool to dismiss him.

If your mind leans towards cynicism, you might point out that Given's return created quite a few headlines about him at a time when managers are still scratching around looking to sign players.

But from what both men said yesterday, the idea of stepping out of international retirement was raised some months ago and if the timing is fortunate, well why wouldn't O'Neill help Given find somewhere where he'll play every week.

He is wasted sitting on the bench at Aston Villa, no matter what way you add it up.

Unfortunately, Given is not alone when it comes to heel-kicking on a Saturday afternoon and O'Neill is thankful for the opportunity provided by Oman for players like Ward, Darron Gibson and Kevin Doyle to add some miles to their legs.

That said, all O'Neill's most important assets have been involved since the season began and unless a major injury scare develops between now and Saturday, he will have his best players available for the Georgia game.

Whether they are good enough or not remains to be seen but O'Neill certainly cannot not be accused of hyping up his team's chances.

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