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Saturday 16 December 2017

Martin O'Neill's men have nowhere to hide now

World champions will test Ireland's threadbare squad

O'Neill and Keane
O'Neill and Keane

THERE is always the sense that Ireland have stepped well above their level when fate places Germany as an obstacle along the road to a major championship final.

Saturday night's shock defeat by Poland has done nothing to erode the feeling that O'Neill and Ireland will have nowhere to hide in the Veltins Arena. As Roy Keane said, a wounded animal is a dangerous thing.

Even during the preliminaries, the Germans can't help but be who they are and when Jogi Loew gave his pre-match press conference in a huge Mercedes dealership yesterday, he only patronised Martin O'Neill's team once.

He said Ireland have spirit, battling qualities and, well some more spirit and battling quality. Then a compliment of sorts when he suggested that Poland and Ireland were peas in a pod.

It was an appropriate venue for Loew to speak in. Not so long ago, Germans believed that they were buying everyone in Ireland Mercedes and BMWs via their taxes and the EU but there has been a fairly dramatic shift in funding arrangements.

Thanks to our marvellous banks and some stern talk from Angela Merkel, they got their money back and there is no real reason to think that Loew won't get exactly what he wants in the Veltin Stadium tonight.

It's all about resources really and no matter what way you add it up, Loew has too many for Martin O'Neill to believe that he can get anything out of this game other than a restoration of pride.

Loew spoke yesterday about problems he has with his full backs and specifically, the difficulty he has replacing Philip Lahm.

It was chastening to hear German hacks list off possible candidates from the Bundesliga and realise that at this moment in time, O'Neill has one specialist full-back and a defence built on wishful thinking and not a lot else.

If there was one significant moment in the ridiculous game against Gibraltar, it was the sight of John O'Shea turned inside out, or O'Neill's only full-back, Stephen Ward, in a very similar pickle.

CRITICISM

For many years, a variety of Ireland managers found it hard to fill the left-full slot and it was a position fans looked at, rarely liked who they saw in it and often as not, made their feelings plain.

Ian Harte and Kevin Kilbane were two players who did their best in the position but took some ferocious criticism while they were doing so. Ireland always managed, somehow.

Now, however, the absence of serious defensive resources is much more serious. Ireland have always had centre-backs but not any more. Ireland have always had two or three quality right-full backs but not any more.

It was encouraging to hear Loew list his difficulties and, indeed, the fact that he is prepared to stick with the squad he has and not look further because he wants to give his players a chance.

If the German are in the throes of a World Cup hangover, he intends to allow his team to play there way out of it and that means that Erik Durm and Antonio Rudiger will be be given a chance to make up for poor performances against Poland. It's a small glimmer of light perhaps, something O'Neill and his players can grab hold of and run with.

O'Neill can unleash Aiden McGeady and James McClean against them and Loew noted the ability of both men to go past defenders and swing in dangerous crosses.

But he also pointed out that there is a steely determination among his players and particularly among those who shipped the most criticism after Warsaw to put that right and restore their dominant position in Group D.

O'Neill is desperately unlucky that the two men he most needed are both sitting at home. Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy would have made an enormous difference to his plans.

Coleman's absence guts his defence and McCarthy's growing maturity would have been a big plus in a game like this.

But O'Neill must make do and all the indications would seem to suggest that he will not pick Wes Hoolahan and will shore up his midfield with Glenn Whelan's experience and Jeff Hendrick's legs.

McClean was injured for the Georgia game but O'Neill has a great deal of time for the Wigan winger and clearly, if the Germans themselves are worried about their full-backs, it would seem churlish not to test that to the limit.

In McClean and McGeady lies whhatever hope Ireland have but to take even a point will take the performance of a lifetime.

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