Irish dreams broken since Coleman incident
Ireland's World Cup bid has limped off course after strong start to campaign
Just after the final whistle sounded in Tuesday's loss at home to Serbia, Martin O'Neill was asked a question that football managers face all the time: At the beginning of all this, would you have taken this scenario, win the last two games and finish in the top two?
There was only one answer O'Neill could give, after eight games in the group. "Of course I would. Win two games, you finish second and stand a chance of World Cup qualification. I'd take that."
But it's an empty point to make. After the fourth game in the campaign, when Ireland were unbeaten, two points clear at the top of the table with three away games out of the way, ask O'Neill the same question but another way around: looking at it now, after eight games would he be happy to be in third place with one of the worst home scoring records in Europe, needing two wins, one of them away to a close rival, and even the not be guaranteed a place in the play-offs?
Of course not.
It's possible to pinpoint the exact time when it all started to go wrong for O'Neill: 9pm on March 24th of this year. That's when Seamus Coleman suffered his broken leg in the dull 0-0 draw with Wales.
While no one can imagine the physical pain Coleman suffered that day when he was taken out of it by Neil Taylor, the side has been suffering since. Suffering badly.
We always wondered how the Irish team would replace Robbie Keane for his goals. But for his talent, presence and leadership, Coleman's absence is so sorely felt.
The campaign has been a case of two halves: a good start (away wins in Moldova and Austria, away draw in Serbia, home win with a clean sheet over Georgia) but a dreadful second half (home draws with Wales and Austria, away draw with Georgia, home loss to Serbia). Tús maith, leath na hoibre not in the lexicon of this panel who left their gaeilge behind long ago.
The outlook for this campaign is grim. Even two wins won't secure second place, but even the act of winning twice in a row is not guaranteed, Ireland needing to come out with a victory in the Cardiff City Stadium, a place where Wales have not lost, and have conceded just twice, in their last seven competitive games.
Scoring goals is the worry, as O'Neill admits.
"We didn't play well in the first half in Georgia, absolutely. We scored a goal and then we couldn't get the ball for periods. We had to do something about that. On Tuesday night we attempted to rectify that and we did do. But we still didn't get a goal. And that's obviously the big concern," he says.
"A Robbie Keane, a 27-year-old Robbie Keane, would have absolutely loved that situation - he would have loved to be the hero, to score the goal. Which I think he could have done.
"We don't have that real cutting edge and we've had to try and win games without that cutting edge. Without that Gareth Bale in your team, without that world-class player. Our world-class player is, unfortunately, injured at this moment.
"And that is not demeaning to my team. My team were fantastic against Serbia," added O'Neill, denying there was an" inconsistency of performance" in his team, so pallid in Tbilisi and so bright (for a while) against Serbia.
"The irony of it all is that fact that even though we played poorly in the Georgia game, we actually created more chances than perhaps we normally do, even with an excellent performance. We could have scored four goals out in Georgia. Whether we deserved to do that is another thing. But that was the case," the manager added.
Even without Coleman, McClean and Brady, Ireland should beat Moldova. Beating Wales is another issue. "Firdst we have to beat Moldova, but [against Wales] if we apply the same sort of pressure as we did on Tuesday, maybe somebody will come up with that moment, that decisive moment that of a getting us a goal. Just somebody…a goalscorer."
But there are none to be seen, now or on the horizon. A chunk of this squad are likely to retire from international football when this campaign ends which could mean Russia next July, or could mean next month, after the Wales game.
The age profile is depressing, as even the "young" players starting to poke their way into the squad now are not exactly of the Ben Woodburn era: Kevin Long is 27, Jonny Hayes is 30, David McGoldrick is 29.
O'Neill may well get his two wins and may get the favours he needs from Bosnia/Greece (see panel). But the sad fact is that this campaign ran out of steam when it was only half way there, when a trip to Russia was visible but is now in regression. Russia has rarely looked so far away.