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Saturday 21 October 2017

TWO years ago a fresh-faced Ireland side enjoyed a comfortable win over Oman in a September friendly.

Fringe men make a case as Meyler and Ward impress but big guns set to return

TWO years ago a fresh-faced Ireland side enjoyed a comfortable win over Oman in a September friendly.

The win counted for very little in the overall scheme of things as, of the XI who started in that triumph over Oman in London, just two players (Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy) were in the starting XI for the subsequent qualifier.

Everyone involved in Irish football can only hope that we avoid a repeat of what happened in that post-Oman game, where the Irish side were trounced 6-1.

But just as we learned very little from that battle with Oman in Craven Cottage, not many lessons will have been imparted into the brain on the back of last night's affair against Paul le Guen's men.

Winners on the night were David Meyler, Stephen Ward and Kevin Doyle. A line about the Corkman, the Dubliner and the boy from Wexford has the makings of a bad pun but the trio, who all cut their teeth in the League of Ireland, got some much-needed game time under their belts after spending far too much of this season as spectators club-wise.

Meyler has played just 23 minutes of Premier League football with Hull City while Doyle and Ward have not kicked a ball in anger since last season, though the pair have been boosted by recent moves away from Wolves and back into the Premier League.

Martin O'Neill picked an experimental side at Lansdowne Road last night, Meyler pressed into action as a right back being the main talking point and his unexpected defensive role will certainly have been food for thought for natural-born defenders like Paul McShane and Damien Delaney who were watching on TV at home in England in their roles as standby players for this squad.

But once the dust settles from this win, the real work will start on the training ground ahead of that Friday afternoon flight to Tbilisi.

From last night's starting team only three men (Shay Given, Stephen Ward and Wes Hoolahan) can have any realistic chance of being named by O'Neill for that 5pm kick-off on Sunday in Georgia.

Richard Keogh and Alex Pearce came into the side as a new-look central defensive pairing but barring a disaster, it will be the John O'Shea/Marc Wilson axis back in harness on Sunday.

Anthony Pilkington and Robbie Brady manned the wings but with Aiden McGeady ready to come back into the side, one of them will lose out.

For Darron Gibson, this was all about getting back on the pitch where he world fell apart last October, with that cruciate injury in a World Cup game against Kazakhstan, as this was his first taste of real football since then but the Derry man had a quiet night in the Irish midfield, with little of the passion and power that he is capable of and Gibson is likely to revert to the bench for the next big test.

Wilson, O'Shea, McGeady, Seamus Coleman, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and, probably, Robbie Keane will all march back on the stage for that big event.

There were some pointers for O'Neill from this game. Meyler is an athletic presence on the field in any position and he is an option at full back, or anywhere he cares to play for that matter.

Meyler was all over the place, in the good sense of that phrase. He set up a good chance for Brady in the 18th minute, only for Eid Al Farsi to block Brady's effort.

And Meyler went close to scoring his first international goal ten minutes before half-time, sending a fierce drive goalwards and the former Cork City man watched in frustration as the effort came off the crossbar.

There was also some good stuff from his fellow full back, Stephen Ward. The feeling is there that O'Neill is not completely convinced by Ward in the No3 shirt and if there were central defensive options open to O'Neill he would consider moving Wilson to the left back role.

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But Ward has come back into the frame with Ireland, after an undeserved spell in exile, and done all that's been asked of him. He was effective last night, the lack of a real attacking threat from Oman allowing Ward to get forward more and it was Ward's cross on 28 minutes which set up a nice chance for Doyle.

Ward and Doyle got more game-time for Ireland last night than they have managed in the last month with their club and it can only be good for Ireland that Doyle (now at Crystal Palace) has joined Ward in securing an exit from their dismal situation at Wolves.

In fact, the displays by Doyle and Ward were two of the more comforting outcomes from a very quiet evening for men like Gibson. Recent times have been a struggle for Doyle, with club and country. Wolves boss Kenny Jackett said recently that Doyle, Ward, Kevin Foley and the other members of the 'bomb squad' at Wolves were "carrying baggage" of successive relegations with the club and he needed to move them on.

Doyle's been enduring some hard days with Ireland too. This was only his second goal for Ireland in two years, and his first time to score at home since he found the net against Andorra, way back in September 2010.

With occasional service into his feet from wingers Pilkington and Brady, and the constant urgings of Wes Hoolahan, Doyle looked like the player he was back at his peak and this extended run-out, and that nicely-taken goal from a Robbie Brady corner, can only boost his confidence.

The sight of Aiden McGeady, Robbie Keane and Shane Long all coming off the bench just short of the hour mark was a sign of O'Neill's real intentions ahead of Sunday. That trio have an astonishing total of 252 caps between them - Shay Given aside,the starting XI last night had only an aggregate total of 163 caps - and it's those names who will be to the fore when the qualifiers kick off on Sunday.

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McGeady looked bright when he came on, going close to scoring his fourth international goal on 66 minutes, while Long tried to spark some panic in the away defence.

Players like McGeady and Long are desperate to add more international goals to their CVs but when Ireland struck again, it was from an unlikely source, Alex Pearce netting in the 81st minute. Again, Brady was the provider from the corner spot and if there is another lesson from last night, it's the fact that set-pieces - part of the game where Ireland fell down under Giovanni Trapattoni - created a couple of goals.

Of course, it was all very like that back in September 2012 when Ireland played Oman the last time, a handy 4-1 win, a bunch of debuts, some sparking cameos and some confidence-boosting net-busting.

That all fell apart in the matter of minutes when Ireland trotted out in the following qualifier and were routed at home by a German side who picked us apart on their route to World Cup glory.

The heat in Tbilisi - they are expecting a heatwave next weekend - and a passionate home crowd will be a complete reversal from the cold and sleepy fare of last night, neither keeper Shay Given or Rob Elliot forced to do anything. We can just hope that unlike in 2012, a win over Oman does not prove a false dawn.

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