Thursday 24 May 2018

'Past history make no difference as Georgia are a big threat'

Jon Walters took an active part in training yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile
Jon Walters took an active part in training yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile

The good news, from Martin O'Neill's perspective, is that Jonathan Walters is fit and ready for a stint of national service in Tbilisi tonight.

The bad news is that Georgia have 11 players whose main aim for this week is to put a dagger into Ireland's World Cup hopes and make a bit of history for themselves by becoming the first side from Georgia to avoid defeat in clashes with the men in green shirts.

The thunder and lightning in the Tbilisi air last night were not the only elements which tried to dig into O'Neill's sleep patterns, as the Republic boss is genuinely concerned that Georgia, without a win in six qualifying games to date in this campaign, pose a threat to his team.

So it's pleasing for the Ireland manager that his main fitness worry, Walters, is fit and ready, a fast recovery from an injury which looked very serious two weeks ago.

"Naturally, I'm very pleased that Jon is available for us," O'Neill said at his pre-match press conference in the Dinamo Arena.

Irish manager Martin O’Neill. Pic: Sportsfile
Irish manager Martin O’Neill. Pic: Sportsfile

"It's a fantastic turnaround, the injury looked pretty bad. He has fought it off. He looks pretty good. We know how important he has been to us in the last few years and we're obviously delighted he is fit and he has a chance."

Saying that Walters has "a chance" of playing is an understatement: the 33-year-old will play, and will hope to carry on his record of playing in every minute of every game in the group.

Shane Long is expected, but not guaranteed, to start, club problems at Southampton eating into his confidence and denying him game time.

"It's always a concern for a manager, when you look at the number of games that a player plays," said O'Neill.

"But I think I have also learnt both as a player and a manager, some players take a little bit longer and need games. Other players can come in and be ready.

"You're hoping that's the case, for instance with Shane Long who hasn't had much playing time but is still very important for us. He will be thinking, 'I haven't played that much but I feel fresh' and so he should do. You work one against the other."

His counterpart, Vladimir Weiss, has a similar problem as many of his players have been out of the frame at their clubs, but O'Neill has maintained his stance of the entire week by warning of the threat from Georgia.

On paper, it's a banker of an away win, the opposition bottom seeds without a win in the campaign.

"I think it's going to be a very difficult game for us. The record will not play any part in it whatsoever," says O'Neill, referring to the stat - a most unwelcome one in Tbilisi - that Ireland have won all eight games against them.

"Despite the good record that the Republic of Ireland have against Georgia in competitive games and friendly matches, I don't think that has a bearing on tonight.

"I think it's a very difficult game for the reasons that I'll give you: Georgia could easily have beaten Serbia here, they played very well against us in the first half of the match in Dublin and they played exceptionally well against Wales.

"They could have beaten Wales so Georgia will probably feel they should have more points on the board. And for all of those reasons, and competitive World Cup qualifying games, this is a very difficult game for us. We're hoping it will be a difficult game for Georgia also," he added, recalling the early exchanges in the home game with Georgia last October.

"They played exceptionally well against us in the first half. They followed that up, it could have been some sort of disappointment to them to have lost the game, by going a couple of days later to play Wales and they played brilliantly against Wales.

"They could easily have scored a second goal here against Serbia and gone on to win that game. These are good players."

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