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Friday 23 February 2018

Managing expectations and negating Eriksen threat top of Martin's to-do list

Martin O’Neill talks to his backroom team in Abbotstown ahead of tomorrow night’s World Cup play-off
Martin O’Neill talks to his backroom team in Abbotstown ahead of tomorrow night’s World Cup play-off

These are the times we are told Martin O'Neill earns the big bucks, his managerial powers coming to the fore in the days leading up the big occasions.

In analysing the Ireland manager's blueprint for success, former players Neil Lennon and John Hartson have spoken of the quirky style adopted; how the timing of his soundbites is impeccable and the less-is-best approach puts players at ease.

Roy Keane, a difficult man to please at the best of times, echoed the affection this week, clearly in thrall of the bespectacled one he'll be flanking at the Parken Stadium tomorrow for the first leg of the World Cup qualifier against Denmark.

"I worked with Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson before and I have absolutely no problem mentioning Martin in the same breath," purred his assistant.

"I wouldn't blink an eyelid at that. I could not be learning from a better manager. It's about saying the right thing at the right time in the right tone. You simplify things.

"There are thousands of coaches out there but management is different."

Managing expectations, as well as a game-plan to stymie Christian Eriksen's influence, is occupying O'Neill's to-do list this week for a change.

Insights from his players in the build-up have been sparse but both Darren Randolph and Shane Duffy, two certain starters tomorrow, each couldn't but confess they'd gotten the plum play-off draw of the four possibilities.

Denmark are no Italy or Croatia. They're arguably not even at the level of a Serbian side deserving victors in Dublin eight weeks ago. While Eriksen is their star, all around him are unfinished articles or players who have reached their level on the club circuit. Thomas Delaney and Yussuf Poulsen play in the Champions League group stage, we are cautioned, yet so too does Jonny Hayes for Celtic. The winger didn't make Ireland's final 27-man squad.

Task

Not alone is this Ireland's chance to reach a first World Cup since in 16 years but it is their best chance. Only for derisory home form, they'd be there automatically by now.

O'Neill can take all the umbrage he wants from the lucky tag attached by Keith Andrews but the facts demonstrate fortuity has followed him around in the past month. If sympathy is sought for being knocked out of last year's Euros by a fresher France team, as O'Neill recently revived in his riposte to Andrews, then he must recognise Ireland's route to Russia has been eased by a series of breaks.

The task of keeping the tie alive heading back to Dublin is the priority but how O'Neill sculpts that imperative into his game-plan will be the intriguing part.

For all the talk of Ireland's prowess on the road, the solitary goals in the trips to Georgia and Wales last month came about from defensive errors.

O'Neill's side enjoyed no more than 33 per cent of possession throughout either game, ensuring the manager will still be branded as one-dimensional. There's nothing to indicate any deviation from the long-ball stuff on a night of high stakes tomorrow.

Philosophy

"The great managers, who might be considered dinosaurs now, had a philosophy about how they wanted the game to be played," explained O'Neill this week.

"You find a way to get the best out of what you have, but I've never played the same system throughout my career. You set up your team to find a way to win. You have to try and shut down the other team."

In this case at least, given Ireland's superiority of personnel in various parts of the pitch, is playing to their strengths too much of an ask?

Identifying the source of Ireland's inability to retain possession under the O'Neill regime remains a mystery often brushed over in the afterglow of implausible victories.

"If you are going up against a side that will have most of the ball, you have to be able to play without the ball," O'Neill mused. "That gives you a chance." Ireland managed just that, and more besides, in the must-win games against Germany and Italy during the Euros crusade, giving them recent examples of profiting from adventure.

O'Neill's tenure, four years going this week, has generated some extraordinary moments but this is a time for efficiency.

Call it straight for what it is - a winnable tie - and get the ball rolling with an away goal.

Whether it be communicated on the bus trip to training tonight or minutes before kick-off, in hushed or raised tones, that theme needs to be led by the manager. Then, he can talked about in the same bracket as Charlton, never mind Clough or Ferguson.

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