Sunday 21 April 2019

Goal standard is missing

Ireland striker Callum Robinson is surrounded by Denmark players (l-r) Pione Sisto, Lasse Schöne and Jens Stryger Larsen during Saturday’s stalemate at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland striker Callum Robinson is surrounded by Denmark players (l-r) Pione Sisto, Lasse Schöne and Jens Stryger Larsen during Saturday’s stalemate at the Aviva Stadium

Is this how low our stock has fallen, where a scoreless draw at home to a rather-average side bereft of their star player, with one attempt on goal in 90 minutes, is deemed to be a success?

The clichés of the past are no longer relevant: put 'em under pressure, we can beat this lot, make Lansdowne Road a fortress. All redundant. A dull draw with the Danes is the new normal.

The aims for Saturday's game at home to a fairly ordinary Danish side were simple: keeping a clean sheet and not losing the game. Anything added to that, a goal, a win, anything, would be a bonus.

Having shipped nine goals against Denmark and Wales in the most recent big tests, Martin O'Neill's Ireland career was in mortal danger: he simply could not afford to go into tomorrow's game at home to Wales on the back of defeats in three successive competitive games. Four strikes and you're out.

The draw with the Danes tees up the idea that the Nations League is still alive.

"We've got Wales here on Tuesday and we obviously want to beat them. For the boys, after getting confidence from a clean sheet, I think we can go on," says O'Neill.

And keeping a clean sheet was ok. Exclude the fiasco of fielding their fustal side in a friendly with Slovakia last month and only two teams have kept Denmark scoreless in their last seven games: world champions France and Ireland.

But five years into the reign of Martin O'Neill, we are no closer to seeing a way of winning games that was evident back in 2013 when he took over.

And as Wales prepare to come to Dublin, that remains the biggest concern. The missing link in the Irish side of 2018: to win games, not just not lose them.

Shane Long has now played 10 successive games for the national team without scoring. The way O'Neill's side now sets up, he could play for another 10 games and not score or come close. Long is doing the loneliest job in Irish football right now, ploughing a lone furrow up front with no service, no support and no ball to his feet and it's not fair. The Southampton man must be low on confidence given his struggles with club as well as country, but asking Long to flit around the final third for 83 minutes, as he did on Saturday, does him a disservice but we still have no plan to get the ball to Long.

"We definitely need to have more possession of the ball. When we did have possession and kept it for a little while, we looked fine," O'Neill admitted.

"We looked comfortable with it. So the idea is, rather than to have little pockets of that, to extend that play. That's really what I'm looking to try to do. Obviously it takes a little time."

But after five years, we are no closer to that, which is the big worry for the two games ahead.

Of course the side can win big matches. They have proved that, again and again. But always on foreign fields.

O'Neill denied before Saturday's game that the Irish public had lost faith, lost patience, even, with the team.

He also accepted that it was up to the team to spark a response from the crowd and not the other way around. It took until the 72nd minute, and Cyrus Christie's shot, for the crowd of get going.

The arrival off the bench of Callum Robinson helped create that, and Robinson has to be in line to start against the Welsh tomorrow as he is the most likely source of a goal.

Far be it from The Herald to tell Martin O'Neill what to do, but at some point the Ireland manager will simply have to stop talking about the non-availability of Robbie Keane.

Almost every one of O'Neill's encounters with the media contains the rueful fact that the manager does not have a mid-20s Robbie Keane to pick from.

"We have not possessed a natural scorer since Robbie Keane retired," O'Neill said on Saturday night.

"My issues up front have been the same as they have been for five years. We had a rather older Robbie Keane and at this minute no one has proved themselves to be a natural goalscorer," was his take on it last Tuesday.

Last month he had this to say: "It's been a difficulty since I've come in here as I inherited a top class striker in the autumn, if not the early winter, of his career in Robbie Keane and we have not replaced him".

It must do wonders for the confidence of Long, or young strikers like Aiden O'Brien or Robinson, to be told regularly that they're not a patch on Robbie. The focus for the next two games has to be on finding a way to create more, not regret the fact that Robbie Keane is no longer 25.

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