Monday 11 December 2017

O'Neill's Ireland shows it has split personality

THAT was cutting it close. Too close. Martin O'Neill used up another get out of jail card and I'm not sure there's too many of them left.

I have to admit to being confused by O'Neill's Ireland. In fact, I'm confused about Ireland full stop.

The version I watched in the first-half against Poland was the polar opposite of the Ireland which came out for the second-half at the Aviva and suddenly looked like a football team.

Where before there was fear and almost panic, Ireland were transformed after the team talk and in the second-half, pushed Poland further and further back until it seemed like they had to give in.

They were lucky in the end, Poland, which may seem like an odd thing to say about a team leading for 89 minutes, but they were in big trouble for the last ten minutes and I've seen teams concede two or three in situations like that.

So, there was some certainty in the second-half to replace the mess which was the first and I have to say, I'm not entirely sure which to expect from Ireland these days.

In the build-up to the game and without any hint from the Ireland camp about the team O'Neill was going to pick, I was trying to choose my own best 11 and I have to say I struggled.

Someone asked me whether O'Neill knew his best team and I had to say that I simply didn't know. How could I answer? I didn't even know what players I would put on the pitch myself and I was only doing it as a bit of fantasy management with none of necessary information.

Since he took the job, O'Neill has had deal with an endless series of different irritants but the most annoying have been with his players. Some don't play. Some play too much. Some are at the wrong level and some are injured.

It has to be hard to try and find a clear path through all of that interference but that's what he's paid the big bucks for.

Naturally enough, questions will be asked of O'Neill, his team selection and whether his players were comfortable in the system he wanted them to play.

It certainly didn't look that way at the start of the game but I do think there was a large element of big game freeze involved.

The players didn't play, to put it simply. They were afraid of the ball. They were afraid to take possession and afraid to do anything with it when it came their way.

Aiden McGeady was guilty of this and James McCarthy too but it infested the team and I'm not sure you can lay the blame for that at O'Neill's feet.

He picked the team most of us wanted to see and he gave them the freedom to attack Poland. If they don't actually do that all he can do is hope to survive the 45 minutes and get them into the dressing room for a chat.

I suspect that there was something more than quiet discussions. Every player was on the front foot from the moment a fussy and half blind referee Jonas Eriksson signalled for the start of the second-half and in the end, I thought we were a bit unlucky not to win it.

I'm not sure we would have deserved it but still, the chance was there to turn what had all the hallmarks of a disaster into something better than the point Ireland got.

Now, after Germany and Scotland did what was expected, it's stress and sweat all the way to the final game against Poland. On the face of it, Ireland lost a lot of ground last night and qualification will be a hard slog.

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