O'neill up for battles
Irish boss wary of Serbia threat in World Cup as FIFA action looms over post-match comments
The initial task for Martin O'Neill is to beat a rap from FIFA over comments he made about the refereeing performance in last month's World Cup draw with Austria.
But in the longer term, Serbia are the team to beat as far as the Ireland boss is concerned in his bid to lead his side towards Russia next summer.
This is a fallow period for O'Neill, six weeks to wait for the next World Cup qualifier and still three weeks before the new Premier League season kicks off - although with three of his players (Glenn Whelan, Aiden McGeady and Daryl Murphy) leaving top-flight clubs to drop down a division, with a possible fourth (Darren Randolph) making the same drop, interest for the Ireland manager in the top flight is, worryingly, dipping.
He was on Irish soil this week, popping up in Kilkenny at the annual love-in for the Irish football family - the official name is the FAI AGM, but in reality it's a back-slapping exercise for the FAI with No Questions Asked (see panel, right).
As one local coaching legend, Brian Cody, endures a summer bereft of the big games he's so used to and deals with questions about his longevity, O'Neill is in a good place, the national team well-placed to finish off World Cup qualification.
There's even some good news about Seamus Coleman's recovery, with no doubt in O'Neill's mind that the Everton man, out with a broken leg since March, will be in good shape for the finals next summer.
"I spoke to him not that long ago and he's doing really fine, he's really pleased with his progress and the club is really pleased and if anyone is going to come back more quickly it will be him," says O'Neill.
"Will he be fit if we ever got to Russia? Absolutely, absolutely. Us trying to get there would be the more difficult thing."
That's why Serbia, and their visit to Dublin in September, after the trip to Georgia, is already in his thoughts.
"I said it right at the start of the competition, and I've not had any reason to change my mind, that anybody who finishes in front of Serbia will win the group, and I included Wales at that particular time," O'Neill says.
"Serbia have got a lot of talented individual players, but I thought Wales' performance in Serbia wasn't bad at all. It was really, really decent considering they were without Gareth Bale.
"If you've got Bale back again, Wales become really dangerous. You've got a couple of players who are also top-quality Premier League players playing for them - the Arsenal lad (Ramsey) and the little boy at Stoke (Allen).
"When you've got Bale back you've got a real proper chance. That's why I couldn't dismiss them.
"It's maybe good news for us that Austria don't feel that they're out of it. There's a battle going on and these two games in three days are obviously big games for us because there are only two matches after that.
"But I still feel that anybody who finishes in front of Serbia will win the group."
O'Neill should be in the dugout when Ireland face Georgia in Tbilisi in September, but the possibility of a FIFA sanction - a fine is more likely than a touchline ban but nothing is guaranteed - is hanging over O'Neill, and James McClean, over comments they made on TV in the aftermath of that draw with Austria in Dublin.
O'Neill makes a valid point on how the matter arose, as both he and McClean made their comments in the immediate aftermath of the game, pressured to do TV interviews just after the final whistle, when the blood is up and the tongue becomes loose.
O'Neill feels that players and coaches may simply not speak at all in such circumstances, or at least not speak their mind.
"It might be something that we'd look at," O'Neill says.
"If corporations and UEFA and FIFA are actually looking for something genuine from players and agree to these flash interviews, then I think that sometimes you have to take some things into consideration.
"There's a great view that you cannot express now what you might feel at the time.
"If you looked at something afterwards and felt 'you know what, I really got that wrong, hopelessly wrong,' then I don't mind apologising afterwards.
"It's an expression and an impression at that particular time. But, overall, I think it's forcing people away from having an opinion.
"But I am hoping that the news will be good," he says of possible FIFA action.
"I think our records are reasonably good. Of course, like anything else if you have to answer for something or other, naturally it does become a concern."
Barring Coleman, O'Neill's squad is injury-free now and moves for players like McGeady and Walters should give them more first-team football in the coming season, but the Ireland boss is also upbeat about his defence, with Ciaran Clark returning from injury and Kevin Long hopeful of Premier League game time.
"He's stepped in and I thought he did fine, I thought he nearly scored a goal for us as well," O'Neill says of Long.
"I saw him at the back end of the season, he's played a few games, by the time I saw him in the last game of season against West Ham, I thought he didn't do too badly in the game. I thought he's got to polish up on a couple of things, which he's well aware of, it's been a late start for him and it's a time now, he's got to cram an awful lot into this season.
"It seems that if they [Burnley] don't replace Michael Keane then he might get a chance to start in games. That would be good news for him if that's the case.
"With a bit of luck we've got Ciaran Clark coming back if he can. I hate to say players are coming back and who knows what happens at the end of it all. So there's a bit of competition for places, which is no bad thing at all."