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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Action to speak louder words against Serbia

Any talk of 'going to war' has to be ditched as O'Neill's side need to play

(l-r) Richard Keogh and Jon Walters share a laugh during training ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Serbia at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
(l-r) Richard Keogh and Jon Walters share a laugh during training ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Serbia at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

Words come easily to the Ireland football scene, certainly they arrive with more ease than World Cup points.

We've had plenty of fighting talk from the camp of late. "We have to fight all the time" (Martin O'Neill yesterday). "We're in there fighting" (O'Neill again). "If we come out fighting like we have done in previous games, we've got a great chance" (Jon Walters), all comments from the Irish camp in the last 24 hours.

Thing is, we have here before. "We know it's going to be a fight to the death," O'Neill said just hours before the side showed anything but a will to fight to the death in Tbilisi.

Battle

Go back a few months and there was a prediction of a bloody battle. "We have to show that we're ready, ready for battle. We're going to war with them," was Roy Keane's take on things in the build-up to the March qualifier at home to Wales.

What transpired in that deathly dull clash with the Welsh, marred of course by that horrific leg break for Seamus Coleman, was anything but war. It was tepid, insipid and devoid of imagination, Ireland unable to create a single chance of note at home to Wales in a highly winnable qualifier, those dropped points against the Welsh in Dublin making tonight's meeting with Serbia all the more important.

There is a touch of steel about a side who are capable of rescuing something from a dire situation, like those late goals away to Germany, away to Georgia (2014), at home to Austria, and others. And this is also an Ireland side unbeaten in this campaign and with just four defeats in 22 competitive games under Martin O'Neill.

Evidence

But despite the fighting talk, there's been little evidence on the field in the last few games under this manager. Talk has been all too cheap, because the side's intensity in pre-match did not match that which came on the field.

So that's why the approach for tonight's tie with Serbia has to be different. No point in building up this game as a war to the death if a classy Serbia side, very much on form, come here, play Ireland off the park and move closer to Russia 2018. Crunching tackles, flying elbows, rash challenges and long goal-kicks won't be good enough to beat Serbia. If anyone thinks that the likes of Aleksandar Kolarov or Nemajna Matic are glass-footed aristocrats who don't like a tackle, they don't watch football.

Serbia can already predict how Ireland will play: defenders keen to get rid of the ball as soon as possible, central midfielders slow to show an interest in taking the ball at their feet, with long, hopeful punts up to a striker like Shane Long or Daryl Murphy will will run his legs into the ground, as John Aldridge - and men like him - did for years.

Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill during training. Photo: Sportsfile
Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill during training. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland need to try. Need to get the ball to the feet of their central midfield players, need to use their wide men.

Jon Walters admitted that he was forced so deep by Georgia last Saturday that he ended up playing as a right-back.

If Wes Hoolahan starts, if someone like David Meyler is injected into a midfield that was bereft of life in Tbilisi, if wide players can make their passes count, perhaps Ireland can get something.

Don't promise to go to war and then raise the white flag.

Play some football, trust Wes Hoolahan to do what he can, something no other Ireland player can do, and maybe, just maybe, brains can emerge at the same level as brawn and Ireland can keep that summer in Russia in sight.

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