Saturday 22 October 2016

O'Neill has big call to make on Whelan

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill celebrates at the final whistle
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill celebrates at the final whistle
Jeff Hendrick, John O'Shea and James McCarthy, Republic of Ireland, celebrate their team's victory at the final whistle
Republic of Ireland's Glenn Whelan

Martin O'Neill has a call to make. Stick with his bright new approach to beating top class international football teams or revert to what went before for the last, dramatic chapter in Euro 2016 qualifying Group D in Warsaw.

He is entitled to feel vindicated right now. He walked into a fog of doubt when he arrived in the team hotel in Castleknock a week ago and has emerged with a crystal clear purpose. Beat Poland and qualify automatically.

But the huge leap forward made by his players and indeed himself when they beat Germany is at risk if he chooses to reinstate Glenn Whelan as the anchor in Ireland's midfield.

In many ways, Germany was a final changing of the guard, the end of the golden generation which has served Ireland well for a decade and more.

O'Neill reached for Shane Long when he needed a goal and Robbie Keane was left sitting on the bench. It was hard for our goal-scoring record holder but the time had come.

Shay Given's knee was damaged in the warm-up stopped him in his tracks just before half-time. Darren Randolph delivered a bullet long clearance which Long made the most of but he also held onto a couple of tricky shots and headers from German sources and kept his head.

He will start against Poland and with Given injured, will hold his place if O'Neill has to take his team into the play-offs in a month.

Whelan was part of Brian Kerr's 2003 under-19 group and while he never hit the heights reached by Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne and John O'Shea at club level, he found a kindred spirit in Giovanni Trapattoni and an international career was born.

O'Neill has leaned on Whelan throughout this campaign and he will surely be tempted to restore him to central midfield for Poland.

Whelan's interpretation of his role in the team under two managers is to sit in front of the back four and mop up.

When he is on the pitch, Ireland essentially have a back five and congestion when they try to play from the back. Usually, the ball is passed sideways.

His game rarely strays beyond that but against Germany, John O'Shea showed what we all knew already; that he is more than capable of taking the ball from his goalkeeper to play the first pass.

Given encouragement to get forward when the opportunity was right, Hendrick and McCarthy found they had more space to work in.

When they needed to dig in and defend, they did it as well as Whelan has done in the past but there was a balance to the team than we have not seen for some time and a greater sense of possibility.

It would be tough on Whelan, no doubt. Harshly criticised for just doing his job under two managers, he can only make himself available and do what he is asked to do.

But he has limitations and O'Neill may have reached a point where his ambition for the team is growing and he is ready and anxious to move in a different direction. He may not. We will know when we see the teamsheet.

Just as complicated is his decision on his striker or depending on how he wants to set-up against Poland, his two strikers.

Within moments of clapping Long on the back for his game changing goal, he pointed out that impact sub is a role which seems to suit him.

The Tipperaryman must have swallowed hard when he read that quote. If O'Neill means what he said, Daryl Murphy or indeed Keane could start against Poland.

O'Neill must also ponder Robbie Brady's position. Against the Germans, he was a fine wingman for Wes Hoolahan when it came to creativity and forward momentum and Seamus Coleman's hoped for return allows the Ireland boss options.

He could leave Brady in the advanced position, switch Cyrus Christie to the left and send Stephen Ward back to the bench which seems the likely scenario.

Marc Wilson's fitness is still in doubt but if he is available, O'Neill has a choice to make at centre-half. Richard Keogh was excellent against Germany and it would be harsh indeed if he lost out.

Two certainties were underlined by the game against Germany. This team is at it's best when Wes Hoolahan is pulling the strings and Jon Walters is our most consistent contributor. O'Neill will find room for them in whatever formation he chooses.

Let's be honest, O'Neill will do it his way and ignore all advice and so he should. The results he has achieved against Germany show that he is hitting his rhythm at this level.

Just over a month ago, Ireland arrived in Gibraltar with nothing more than a faint hope of having any further interest in a trip to France next summer.

Scotland slipped and opened the door but O'Neill and his players have answered their critics and taken four points off Germany.

Regardless of what happens against Poland he has written one new and wonderful chapter in the story of Irish football. If he can do it once, why not repeat the trick and turn doubters into believers?

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