Wednesday 26 October 2016

Reality bites after robbie

Problems up front and between posts for O'Neill before Georgia clash

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, left, and assistant manager Roy Keane during squad training at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, left, and assistant manager Roy Keane during squad training at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin.
Ireland striker Shane Long.

Barely a month after Robbie Keane woke up to the reality of life without international football, Martin O'Neill is counting the cost of his absence.

With yesterday's withdrawal of Daryl Murphy and Kevin Doyle, O'Neill is down to bare bones and dealing with a full-blown striker crisis.

While Keane was around, even much reduced and less prolific in the last few years, he was something of a comfort blanket for all of us.

If push came to shove, there was always Robbie but with his name removed from the small group of strikers available at any given time, O'Neill's options look painfully thin in advance of the World Cup double-header against Georgia and Moldova.

"I don't think I would be giving away too many secrets when I say that maybe there's a dearth of Irish international players capable of playing in that position," said O'Neill.

"We have Shane (Long) and we have Jon Walters. At a push and in a different style we could play James McClean in that aspect," he added.

O'Neill reported no further progress on Scott Hogan but has handed Adam Rooney an opportunity to make his presence felt after a long time soldiering in the wilderness.

"Adam comes in and if he gets an opportunity, I'm sure he'd like to shine," he said.

O'Neill's difficulties are further complicated by the fact that neither Long nor Walters have been what could be described as regular starters for their clubs.

In Long's case, he is on a 17-game scoreless streak which is almost certainly connected, at least in some part, to the removal of Ronald Koeman from his life.

After years threatening to deliver a goal supply which would lift him into the top rank of Premier League goalscorers, Koeman's steady influence supplied the missing ingredient which allowed him to blossom in the second-half of last season.

In the build-up to Ireland's game with Belgium in Bordeaux, Thibaut Courtois rated Long on the same level as his own nation's top target men Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke.

Long did an amount of work in France during the finals but he didn't score and while he was killing hours between Ireland's games, he was reading that Koeman, his spark, was on his way to Everton to be replaced by Frenchman Claude Puel at St Mary's.

Wrapped up as he was in an Irish cocoon, he can't have any time to dwell on his change in club fortunes but on his return, the reality of a new manager hit him in the face. All the progress he made under Koeman seems to have evaporated.

"It would be nice if the players were coming in here were playing and scoring a few goals but even if they had a few goals, there would be no guarantee they would score against Georgia," claimed O'Neill.

"Obviously it is better if you are doing well. That is a given. We have lost Robbie Keane who has been the natural goalscorer and he was the one who thought you could conjure you a goal, get you a goal.

"We don't really have that. Jon Walters could nip in and get you something. Shane is the scorer of some really, really great goals. I want him to get into positions to score more often. But I don't think him seemingly not being a regular with Southampton would affect us because we would have to rely on certain players and Shane has been excellent for us in the past.

"It's very important for someone to step up and say, do you know what, I can score these goals.

"When you think about Kevin Doyle, he has missed the last couple of games. He is coming back and would probably be fit for the weekend at club level.

"It would be nice to have him but Adam steps in," said the Ireland boss.

O'Neill is also less than well supplied in the goalkeeping department and just as Keane's presence helped cover a multitude in the goalscoring area, Shay Given was a reassuring back-up to Darren Randolph.

According to O'Neill, David Forde remains committed to establishing himself at Portsmouth for the foreseeable future and Kieren Westwood's withdrawal with a calf injury leaves a big gap.

"I told you last time that David wanted to cement his place at Portsmouth and I totally understand that. He felt he needed some time to bed in there and he didn't want to be away on international matches," said O'Neill.

That leaves him with Danny Rogers, on loan from Aberdeen at Falkirk and Ian Lawlor, back at Manchester City and well down the queue.

So all told, this was an unsettling first day for O'Neill in a crunch six point week hosting Georgia at the Aviva and travelling to Moldova.

"Georgia will cause us the same sort of problems as they did in the two Euro qualifiers. I thought the first game was very tight. It was our first game as it was for them," he said.

"By the time we played them again, we'd beaten Gibraltar, the crowd were really up for it but it took us a long time to break them down and they caused us a few problems. I don't think we could be treating anybody lightly. Even if we were at full strength we couldn't do it.

"I'm concerned about the game. No thoughts at all about Moldova until we play the match and that's the message to the players," added the Ireland manager.

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