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Wednesday 20 September 2017

Nervy night for O'Neill

(l-r) Ireland manager Martin O’Neill talks to his assistant Roy Keane during training at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi, Georgia. Pic: Sportsfile
(l-r) Ireland manager Martin O’Neill talks to his assistant Roy Keane during training at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi, Georgia. Pic: Sportsfile

The thing about luck in football matches is that when you start to rely on it or expect it, you get let down.

That is why this Ireland side should be wary, very wary, of what's about to unfold in the heat of Tbilisi this evening. Our record against Georgia is one that other nations would envy. Eight games, eight wins. As the Georgian camp pointed out this week, even in their meetings with the likes of Spain, Italy and France over the years, they have managed to nick a draw, a win at times.

But eight losses in eight games hurts the football people of this proud nation. And tonight could be the night when Ireland's luck runs out at last.

Luckiest

Brian Kerr, Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O'Neill have all enjoyed that big dollop of good fortune when it came to playing the Georgians, Trapattoni the luckiest of all.

The war in Georgia in 2008 meant that his 'away' game against the Georgians was not played in the white-hot heat of Tbilisi, with the arduous journey to get their then added to by the hostile crowd, but in testimonial-like conditions in Mainz, a neutral venue.

(l-r) Ireland strikers Shane Long and Jon Walters are pictured in training in Tbilisi ahead of
this evening’s clash with Georgia. Pic: Sportsfile
(l-r) Ireland strikers Shane Long and Jon Walters are pictured in training in Tbilisi ahead of this evening’s clash with Georgia. Pic: Sportsfile

O'Neill benefitted from that luck against Georgia, not just with the Aiden McGeady-inspired win in his first competitive game with Ireland but also that home win over the Georgians in this campaign, Seamus Coleman the unlikely match-winner.

Ireland have a World Cup to play for, Georgia playing only for pride. But their pride has been bashed by that stream of losses to the Republic. They are handicapped by the loss of four of their preferred starting XI so this is not a strong Georgia side, and a batch of their players came into the camp with club woes, three of their starting XI denied regular club football, two of them outcasts at their clubs due to contract disputes.

Luck has to turn and this young Georgian side, not a second string but not far off, can express themselves without fear, knowing that a loss would be expected but a win or draw could make them heroes.

Creativity is the big worry for Ireland, the side unable to muster up much in terms of scoring opportunities over 180 minutes against Wales and Iceland in March, and that attacking edge was also missing at home to Austria.

Yet a point in Tbilisi would not be the worst outcome, and would keep Ireland still in the race for Russia 2018. Draw your away games, win the home ones and beat the minnows either way is usually enough to get you to the next stage of qualification.

Ireland have mixed that up, dropping points at home to Austria and winning in Vienna.

But O'Neill needs to get his team right. For some previous tests, O'Neill had injury and suspension woes. Barring the long-term absentee Seamus Coleman - who could be back in action before the end of the year according to some figures at his club - he's had a clear run at things, Jon Walters overcoming his injury problems.

Even the late withdrawal from the squad of David McGoldrick for personal reasons - his wife suffered complications after giving birth earlier this week and the player stayed behind to be with his family - O'Neill has options.

His back four picks itself, Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark resuming the central defensive partnership which worked so well for the wins in Moldova and Austria, Cyrus Christie and Stephen Ward manning the full back slots.

After that it gets tricky. Daryl Murphy will be in the manager's thoughts for a starting role up front, while Jon Walters could also be picked as the main front man, but O'Neill is likely to place his trust in Shane Long.

The player could do with some faith shown in him by a manager as he's played little football for his club this season, the same sob story as last term. Long rewarded O'Neill with a goal against Germany two years ago, and the Ireland boss will demand something similar from the Tipperary man if he gets to start this evening.

If Long does start up front that means Walters will play out wide, with James McClean on the other flank, creating three slots in midfield. Wes Hoolahan has claims to earn a start but that's unlikely, as Robbie Brady will probably be added to the midfield mix with Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan.

Georgia play with two defensive midfielders, Murtaz Daushvili and Jano Ananidze, so with Whelan and Arter doing a lot of the leg work in the middle, the aim will be to create some space for Brady to work some of his magic, make things happen.

Roy Keane was clear, speaking earlier this week, on what he thought was needed. Someone to come up with a moment of quality - the word magic was not used - to make things happen.

Shane Duffy has yet to score for Ireland, so tonight would be a good time to start, while Stephen Ward showed Chelsea recently that he can finish well.

A scrap awaits, a tough night in Tbilisi but a point may have to be enough.

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