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Thursday 29 September 2016

O'Neill's Serbia worry hard to explain

Ireland in a much better place than when he took over as boss

Shane Long during Irish training at the Stadion FK Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade Photo: Sportsfile
Shane Long during Irish training at the Stadion FK Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade Photo: Sportsfile

It almost feels like it never happened. France came and went in a blaze of great, great moments, but now it's Serbia and everyone seems worried again.

The simple fact that qualification for the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018 is fiendishly more difficult than it was for France probably explains a good deal of the apprehension about meeting Serbia in Belgrade tonight, but not all of it.

Perhaps it's the fact that we have hardly heard from Martin O'Neill in the seven days since the squad got together and when he did speak, he said very little. Certainly, nobody has heard any rallying calls yet.

The main message from sidekick Roy Keane was that this is going to be tough, but that the players will give it a right go.

This is really the minimum requirement for any qualifying campaign and provided no telling insight into the squad mentality at the moment.

On the face of it, Ireland are in a much better position now than they were when O'Neill took over.

Robbie Keane and Shay Given's expected departure from the mix has not damaged the squad in any real way

Important

Keane stopped being really important to Ireland when Giovanni Trapattoni shuffled off the stage and Given's last headline grabbing activities were of the negative variety when he was stretchered off against Germany at the Aviva last October.

On form alone, Ireland have nothing to fear from Serbia for the logical reason that they never made it to the Euros after one of the easiest qualification routes imaginable.

And yet, there is a sense of anxiety about Serbia which is not easy to explain.

Have we forgotten the wonderful passages of Irish play in Paris, Lille and Lyon? Or perhaps we remember the awful stuff against Belgium in Bordeaux and worry that this is closer to what we saw in qualifying.

O'Neill's relentlessly a la carte approach to team selection in the first two years of his time finally coalesced into what appeared to be a consistency in France, but nobody is confident that he won't revert to type.

There is no doubt that there is a sense of disappointment in the fact that the Premier League didn't come knocking down Delia Smith's pantry door to drag Robbie Brady away to a new life of fame and fortune.

Jeff Hendrick eventually got a move, but with all due respect to Burnley, their relationship with the Premier League is likely to be fleeting and he could be back in the Championship in nine months.

The general feeling that both Brady and Hendrick had done enough to suggest promotion to a much higher level was clearly not matched by hard offers and that was definitely deflating.

There is also the fact that Shane Long suffered in the summer by doing nothing at all other than losing his manager, Ronaldo Koeman, to Everton and ended up on the bench again.

Close proximity to Koeman helped Long discover his mojo at Southampton, but looks likely to have the opposite impact on James McCarthy at Goodison, another disappointing outcome of the summer months.

James McClean too must have felt that he did enough in France to catch the eye of his manager or even another, but like Long, he's been seeing an uncomfortable amount of game time from the bench since the season started.

Oddly enough, the most positive pre-match boost has come from the Serbian camp.

Difficult

They are missing suspended Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov and according to Branislav Ivanovic, believe that Ireland are the most difficult opponents they could have expected for an opening game in a qualifying campaign.

There is also the fact that Ireland have won opening games in the last four tournament qualifying rounds which, at the very least, tells us that this time of the year is a good period to take on a decent team away from home.

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