Thursday 18 January 2018

Draw is on the cards in group of fine margins

Seamus Coleman Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus Coleman Photo: Sportsfile

I won't say I'm confident about tonight's World Cup opener against Serbia, but I'll be disappointed if Ireland don't leave Belgrade with a point.

At the start of every qualifying campaign there will be nerves, and particularly for this one.

I believe that is why we are seeing an amount of anxiety and apprehension from fans and, indeed, Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane.

The fact that O'Neill has yet to sign a new contract, with the rest of his staff waiting to do the same as a consequence, could be seen as a distinct distraction.

Without knowing why O'Neill and the FAI cannot seem to reach a a point where a deal is signed off and forgotten about, it just seems ridiculous that this hasn't been sorted out once and for all.

I really do not think it will have an influence on the players at present. Selfishness prevails in all dressing-rooms and this is a very good bunch of players who are totally committed to playing for their country.

Whether O'Neill has signed his deal or not won't make any difference to them.

If it emerges that there is a problem, that might be a different scenario, though.

The other factor which I believe has impacted on people's thinking for this game is the fact that the draw was so long ago and we've had a lot of time to dwell on it.

I think everyone saw the draw and realised that this would be a dogfight from start to finish, simply because there are four teams in the group which, on paper, look to be of a similar standard.

Wales, Austria, Serbia and Ireland could all win the group, but the margins will be so fine that one point might make the difference between first, runner-up and an idle summer in 2018.

O'Neill and his players should take great confidence from a run of achievements which began against Germany this time a year ago, continued against Bosnia and peaked in France.

Ireland came out of a tough qualifying group to get to France and another one to earn the right to play the host nation in Lyon. So all told, there is no reason for anyone to be scared of Serbia or the road ahead.

In fact, with the momentum created in June, O'Neill's players should be full of positive thoughts.

On the Serbian side of the equation, they are missing two big players in Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov, and that has to be a plus.

My big worry is that Seamus Coleman won't make the cut or if he does, he might struggle for match fitness.

O'Neill gave both John O'Shea and Coleman the all-clear but I think I'll wait for the team sheet before I feel confident about that.

Coleman led the team in France and grew into that role with each game. I would see him as the squad captain for this campaign. This is the start of something new, something fresh and for that reason Coleman's appointment would set the right tone for this qualifying series.

I'm not particularly worried about James McCarthy's absence, because Ireland's depth in midfield has improved significantly in the last few years.

Harry Arter could easily slot into McCarthy's position. In fact, Ireland might get a bit more going forward out of the Bournemouth midfielder.

McCarthy's club circumstances don't look great now and the operation on his groin is just the latest in a series of injury problems he has experienced in recent years.

I wonder if his early start is finally catching up with him now. Playing so many games for one so young has to have some sort of cumulative impact on the body and maybe that's what we are seeing now.

Arter, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady will be able to take up the slack as they did in France and give Ireland the foothold in the game they need to get at least a point.

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