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IRELAND TO TAME CELTIC COUSINS

No James McCarthy but there's still plenty of reason to believe that Ireland can tame resurgent Scotland and walk away from Celtic Park with at least one precious point.

McCarthy's withdrawal came as no surprise to anyone following this story but Martin O'Neill must march on and make a new plan for Scotland.

If he has been reading the Scottish press, he might as well give now and go home.

There was an article in one of Scotland's tabloids during the week which beautifully illustrated why this nation of football fanatics swings from wild enthusiasm about their national team to utter despair.

One of Scotland's top football writers, tapping into the vein of optimism which has been ringing through the country since Gordon Strachan set about organising a disparate group of Scottish League and lower division talent in England into a fighting force, lost the run of himself.

The standout bit of nonsense which should be pinned up in the Ireland dressing-room before tonight's epic clash at Celtic Park puts forward with great certainty the notion that Strachan has a group of players which is, man-for-man, technically superior.

Apparently, only a few of O'Neill's options would not make it into the Scottish first XI.

Run a finger down the Scottish squad list and the first flaw in the argument appears. Derby, Wigan, and Notts Forest feature strongly but not the Premier League.

Which begs the question, if these players are so technically gifted and superior to anything Ireland can boast, why are they mostly playing in the lower divisions?

Why haven't Premier League clubs been beating a path north of the border like the old days to round up all these technically superior footballers?

The truth is that Ireland has more regular Premier League performers than Scotland, a full-back universally accepted as the best in Europe and a midfielder - McCarthy - rated as the most promising young talent in these islands.

Of course, McCarthy has bailed out of this game, the end of a month-long saga which always seemed to have an inevitable conclusion.

But Ireland did all right without him in Germany and if his career as an international is to follow the same trajectory as it has done since Giovanni Trapattoni fell out with Roberto Martinez, O'Neill might as well get used to planning without him.

Realistically, there is not much to choose between the two squads and it depends on your perspective which players would make up the best composite squad and how many from each nation would be in it.

And this is a great example of just how wildly the Scottish heart beats when they put in a few half-decent performances and gather up four points from three qualifying games. They are, to use a coarse term, gagging for a bit of success and when that happens, common sense goes out the window.

To be fair to Strachan, he has a much more balanced view. As he said yesterday, six months ago, Scotland's friendly with England was grabbing all the headlines but that the efforts of his players have created a huge buzz around this game.

Roy Hodgson and his lads are only so much chip paper until the serious business of Euro 2016 qualification is finished for the year.

No doubt, Strachan fancies his own group of players to win this one. He has done a great job of organisation and lifted his country out of a rut but let's be honest, before this week, how many first-team regulars for Scotland could the average Ireland fan name without consulting Google?

Strachan gracefully conceded that O'Neill has just as much talent available and there were many nodding heads when he said with some authority that Group D would go down to the wire.

Homework

The final year of Trapattoni's time taught Ireland fans that our pool is indeed small but the opening months of the O'Neill era showed us that we have technical players who can pass and Strachan has clearly done his homework. He is taking nothing for granted.

The first three competitive games have shown that O'Neill has raised spirits from a low at the end of Trapattoni to a point where Germany were faced down and a point won with a late goal.

No dropped heads in Gelsenkirchen and that sense of togetherness and focus will be absolutely crucial in a whirlpool of emotion, tension and if we're unlucky, raucous sectarianism.

McCarthy's absence may even ease some of that but there is no doubt that calm heads and concentration will be at a premium.

O'Neill gave nothing away in his pre-match press conference but he has few options left in midfield now that McCarthy is sitting in his kitchen.

He can make a straight swap Darron Gibson for McCarthy and play Stephen Quinn and Jeff Hendrick alongside him, flanked by James McClean and McGeady.

That would likely leave Robbie Keane up front on his own, a role he has never enjoyed but O'Neill is not a man to second-guess and he may just feel that there is one big one left in his captain. Let's hope so.

IN GLASGOW


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