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Saturday 10 December 2016

O'Neill gets the results but not plaudits

Ireland boss' realist view has been accurate so far in group

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill celebrates after victory over Moldova
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill celebrates after victory over Moldova
Shane Long celebrates after scoring Ireland’s first goal against Moldova in Chisinau

During the first year of Martin O'Neill's time as Ireland manager, it was hard to avoid the feeling that his brain was a seething, bubbling mass of indecision.

Throughout the qualifying campaign for France 2016, we learned that O'Neill likes to keep his players guessing and doesn't form firm positions on team selection until the last minute.

But since Lille and Italy, he seems to have refined his thought processes considerably and found a group of players he can lean on.

For the first time in nearly three years, he has fielded a reasonably settled team for four consecutive competitive games and achieved a consistency of selection which can never be a negative.

Despite that, performances since the start of World Cup qualifying Group D can only be described as patchy and some critics would feel that this is a generous assessment.

Belgrade was a mess and the first half against Georgia no better and yet, Ireland sit on top of the group on the same points total as Serbia, displaced from the top spot by goal difference.

Ireland have now played two tricky away games, banked four points from them and when they finish with Austria in Vienna next month, they won't have another road trip until September.

Worried

In between, home games in March against Wales, who had some of the lustre from France chipped away by Georgia in Cardiff, and in June against Austria, the team everyone worried about when the draw was made but who have started badly and are already playing catch-up.

All good then. Ireland are in an excellent position after winning six points from two banana skin games against lesser teams in the group and if they could somehow plunder a point in Vienna, O'Neill would sit down to his Christmas dinner luxuriating in the certainty that his team is still right in the mix for Russia 2018.

So why does it still feel like O'Neill and his players are riding their luck in every game?

A monsoon in Belgrade may have been the most significant technical aspect of that game, given what Serbia have done since.

O'Neill seems to believe that Serbia are the best team in the group and his thoughts have some weight.

To be fair to O'Neill, he called that very early when most of us were looking at Wales and Austria as the teams to be beaten.

In fact, O'Neill has been very good at predicting the ebbs and flows of group qualification since he took the job and seems to put a lot of thought into weighing and assessing each fixture as it comes and not just Ireland's games.

After drawing with Scotland at the Aviva in June 2015 and while most of us were resigned to watching events in France on television with no Irish interest, he was talking about twists and turns and he was right.

At the start of this group, he picked up the theme again and highlighted Georgia as a team which cannot be underestimated and Serbia as the big threat to everyone else. Again he was right.

Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be able to form as clear a view about some of his own players, particularly, Wes Hoolahan.

There should be no further debate about Hoolahan. He should start in every game if he's fit and Moldova proved that.

Sure, he was bounced off the ball a couple of times early in the game, but he did as he always does and dusted himself down to go again.

His pass for that early Shane Long goal was a thing of beauty and no other Irish player has shown the capacity to have played it.

He makes things happen for Ireland in a way no other player can and even if he is 34, he can surely keep going at this level until the finals in Russia.

O'Neill won't be moved on this, however, and it is a certainty that the debate about Wes will rumble on for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, we can be pleased about McClean's two-timer in Moldova and the fact that he seems willing and able to step into the role as the go-to man for a goal.

We can be happy that Long broke his barren streak and that Seamus Coleman is relishing the captaincy and his form in a green shirt has risen to match his elevated status.

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