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Friday 9 December 2016

Why Martin O'Neill is between a rock and a hard place

All eyes will be on the early kick-off in Tbilisi to see if Scotland slip

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill relaxes
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill relaxes

No matter how much Martin O'Neill tries to tell everyone that Gibraltar are anything more than fodder, nobody is buying it.

Gibraltar are nothing more than a small and very light starter when placed in a menu with Poland and Germany or even Georgia and there is no profit in this game for anyone other than perhaps Robbie Keane.

His running total of 65 goals is three shy of Gerd Muller, one of the greatest strikers ever to grace a football pitch and a repeat of his hat-trick in the Aviva against Gibraltar tonight would bring him level with the German legend.

But Keane's remarkable series of career statistics aside, the only numbers that count, are the nine points available in Faro, Tiblisi and Frankfurt.

Roy Keane tried to sharpen the concentration on Thursday but the reality is that Ireland should put this game to bed very early and allow the 3,000 Ireland fans who have mixed holidays with football to return to their resorts in good form.

Foolish

Unfortunately, we cannot have such certainty about any of the remaining games, including Monday's encounter with Georgia at the Aviva, and it would be foolish in the extreme to forget the past and struggles Ireland have had dealing with supposedly weaker sides.

But for this one, it will be a cavalcade of goals and if it isn't, then we really have cause to be alarmed about the second game of the double-header.

With that in mind, O'Neill is more than aware that Seamus Coleman, Marc Wilson, James McClean, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan are all on two yellow cards and risk exclusion from the next game if they get another.

He will remind them of that before they start and urge at least some element of caution but ultimately, the players must take this game on its merits.

"We have five on yellow cards and it must be very difficult to go through a ten-game programme with finding players on yellow cards. I would like to advise them that some challenges won't be worth it but of course there will challenges that are worth it.

"But I cannot start worrying or predicting what is happening. If you start to think of things too far ahead it will come back to haunt you," said O'Neill at the pre-match press conference.

O'Neill will make no attempt to keep the players from finding out about Scotland's efforts in Tbilisi.

Difficult

"It is very difficult in this day and age to prevent people from knowing the result even if they are locked in a dressing room. For instance when we played Scotland in Scotland, Georgia had played Poland and we were aware of that result," he said.

For those who still harbour the mad hope that somehow Ireland can qualify automatically, a resounding defeat for Poland in Frankfurt and for every team that face Germany from now on apart, of course, from Ireland is required.

But the only fixture anyone is really interested in this week is Scotland's game. They are Ireland's direct rivals for third place in the group and if Gordon Strachan can escape with three points, a bleak picture will become even greyer.

There is an amount of delusion at work here. O'Neill claims to be convinced that the path of the group could yet fork in all sorts of different ways but in reality, most qualification series follow the usual script.

Remember, the only time Ireland really found some fortune in a group was when Gary Mackay produced the favour of all time and helped us along the way to Euro 88.

Other than that, the hope that somehow fate will deliver enough points to the men in green and throw a custard pie at the rest is a forlorn one.

Cohesive

You normally get what you deserve and if we are honest, Ireland do not deserve to be ahead of anyone in this group but minnows.

Can anyone point to a cohesive period of football from O'Neill's team in the last two years which would allow us to recognise progress and praise it?

Keane suggested on Thursday that Ireland had played very well against Scotland but most of us have a different view.

It was probably our best full 90 minutes in this campaign so far but that was only good enough to get a point in a home game and no matter what way you add it up, that is simply not good enough.

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