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Saturday 18 August 2018

O'NEILL IS STILL SEARCHING FOR CERTAINTY in SELECTIOn

Ireland head to Tbilisi without proper dress rehearsal for opening qualifier

I'VE got to admit to some surprise when I saw the team Martin O'Neill picked for the game against Oman.

At the end of the match, I expected to have a clearer idea of the team he is likely to play against Georgia and not just because, like everyone else, I'm curious to see what he has sifted from the last nine months.

I wanted to see as many of the team he will play get some time together on the pitch as a dress rehearsal.

For one reason or another, O'Neill has never had the chance to put out what he might call his first team. Injuries and various weddings and domestic issues have always forced him to mix and match from a big pool but not always the right one.

That's why I thought he would grab the chance to do it against Oman but, instead, he put out the 'B' team and Ireland had a glorified training spin and not a great one at that.

Perfect

I have no problem with using friendlies in that way but I would have thought that Oman was the perfect and necessary opportunity to play as close to his best team as possible.

For me, the process of management, be it international or club, is an ongoing assessment of all resources available. Depending on the time you have between starting the job and playing competitive football, you try to suck in as much knowledge about the players available and, based on that, you make some decisions.

Some managers get a summer to plan. Others get a few days. But all of them want to find out as much about their players and as quickly as they can.

At club level, if you're lucky and have control, you identify gaps and then go to whoever signs the cheques and tell him the players he has to go out and get.

But the assessment never ends. As the body of knowledge expands about the players at the club and work has been done to weed out those not required and add people you want, certainty increases and trust builds.

Martin O'Neill has had a long run-in, plenty of time to make some judgements on his players and plenty of time to formulate a plan which, hopefully, will bring the very best and more out of the Ireland squad.

But he has no confirmation about any of his thoughts and ideas yet and I thought Oman would have given him a chance to reach some solid conclusions.

So, to a certain degree, he is going into this game against Georgia in the dark. It can't be a good thing that the team he picks for Sunday will probably be together for the first time on a pitch under O'Neill.

Yet he could have played near enough eight of his starting line-up for Tbilisi against Oman.

I don't really understand why he didn't, to be honest, but he's the boss and I'm sure he has his reasons.

Perhaps he is worried about injuries. Perhaps there is more going on than we know about and he decided to keep his cards close on Wednesday night at the Aviva.

We know now that James McCarthy's problem was a bit more serious than blisters and that his ankle took a knock.

We also know that Jeff Hendrick and James McClean have been ruled out and that Joey O'Brien had to go home early.

I think McClean and Hendrick would have started against Georgia so, if you include McCarthy (pictured, left), at least three of his picks would not have been able to play against Oman one way or the other.

Robbie Keane, Shane Long and Aiden McGeady had a bit of a run around but nothing of any consequence. All told, I feel it was a wasted opportunity.

The other item from the week which also surprised me is the talk of systems and a three-man defence but I believe that this was nothing more than a smokescreen.

So far, anything he has said on the subject is contradictory and other than wondering why he would bother saying anything at all, I would treat it as nothing more than something to talk about when he's in front of a microphone.

As for the performance against Oman, David Meyler did well in an unfamiliar position and I thought Kevin Doyle and Stephen Quinn also put in decent shifts.

It told us nothing about how Ireland will approach Georgia and for that, we have to rely on patches of good football seen during the long warm-up schedule.

Much of the pressure for this opening game and indeed the campaign ahead will fall on James McCarthy's shoulders and as I've said before, I think he can step up to an even higher level if he learns how to take hold of a game.

I fully accept what Roy Keane said yesterday, that McCarthy cannot be anything other than what is in his nature.

But even allowing for the possibility that he is simply not cut out to lead through the force of his own personality as much as his ability, which Keane did naturally, I still think he has room to improve in this area.

I hope to see Wes Hoolahan in the starting line-up but I'm not completely sure I will. O'Neill might feel more comfortable for a tough away game in hot conditions with McCarthy and Glenn Whelan in midfield and two strikers.

Uneasy

But I would pick Hoolahan. For me, he is one of Ireland's best players and when he is on the pitch, he makes things happen and makes the opposition uneasy.

O'Neill's Ireland should be able to win in Georgia. He might not have the range of players he needs but I think he has good options and enough of them.

His top players have all been playing since the season started. Séamus Coleman picked up where he left off last season and McCarthy has been doing well in the same team.

I sense a good spirit within the squad and nobody can argue that they haven't had enough time to prepare. They must be really keen to get going now. After all those months, a three-point start would create momentum and send out a message to Poland, Scotland and maybe even Germany that Ireland mean business.

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