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Friday 14 December 2018

Will the real Ireland please stand up?

O'Neill has to get his side on the front foot from early on

DREAM: James McClean celebrates his goal for Ireland in the World Cup qualifier against
Wales last October. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
DREAM: James McClean celebrates his goal for Ireland in the World Cup qualifier against Wales last October. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

There are two Irelands when it comes to international football.

And that's nothing to do with the border or Brexit.

There is the Republic of Ireland side which showed its teeth on foreign fields like Vienna, Cardiff, Lille and Gelsenkirchen. The team capable of harrying, maybe burying, an opposition who live on a higher plane but struggle to cope in a brawl. The side which other nations hate to play against and which the travelling Irish support adore.

And there is the other Ireland. The one which looked so shapeless, clueless and hapless at home to Denmark (1-5), away to Wales (1-4), the side which can play for 90 minutes in a friendly against the likes of France, Iceland or Turkey and struggle to pose more than one moment of attacking football, the side which has to come from behind to win a friendly at home to the USA's B team.

It will take a lot of Martin O'Neill's energy and experience this week to make sure that it's Example A, not B,which trots out onto the field at Lansdowne Road tomorrow night.

Stance

Lose, or even draw, at home to Denmark and Ireland's interest in the Nations League is over, harm done to the chances of qualifying for Euro 2020. O'Neill won't get sacked if his team lose the game tomorrow night but he will be in the managerial equivalent of death row, awaiting a fate he cannot avoid.

Caution is O'Neill's typical stance, especially in Dublin and it can't escape the attention of anyone in the Irish camp, or anyone who buys a ticket for tomorrow, that home form is dismal.

The last six home competitive games have brought two wins (one a narrow and undeserved defeat of Georgia, the other a dismissal of an awful Moldova), two draws (Wales, Austria) and two losses (Denmark and Serbia).

Dublin is anything but a fortress, as the Danes showed 11 months ago, as the team starts slowly and then gets worse. The verve shown in Vienna absent at home.

Much of that comes from the midfield, and if Roy Keane is to earn his (insanely large) salary from the FAI, it's this week that he will do that. Jeff Hendrick was bossed out of the game in Cardiff last month by a 17-year-old.

NIGHTMARE: Callum Robinson shows his frustration in last month’s 4-1 Nations League defeat to Wales in Cardiff. Photo: SPORTSFILE
NIGHTMARE: Callum Robinson shows his frustration in last month’s 4-1 Nations League defeat to Wales in Cardiff. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Tomorrow night Ireland need Hendrick to show that he is indeed a Premier League player, the man we saw in Euro 2016, not the shadow who lumbered around the Cardiff City stadium, chasing that teenager (Ethan Ampadu) with all the confidence of am empty crisp bag blown onto the pitch.

O'Neill has a number of problems to grapple with for tomorrow's game. He has suffered injury-enforced withdrawals, so players who would start (if fit) are unable to play, talents like Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, Jon Walters, James McCarthy absent through injury, Declan Rise missing due to indecision.

Problems

Irish confidence for tomorrow's test would be so much sounder if Rice was at the heart of that Irish defence or was anchoring the midfield. Instead, he's still thinking, nothing O'Neill can do about that. Of course O'Neill also has problems of his own making. Perhaps in private he has showered the prodigal son Harry Arter with praise but in public, the Ireland boss has been less than warm, saying it was up to Arter to "prove people wrong".

O'Neill's words of praise for Matt Doherty seem to be given through gritted teeth, the Ireland boss's over the top praise for Seamus Coleman as one of the best full backs in the world (Coleman is good but, really?) in stark contrast with cold take on Doherty.

An arm around the shoulder could lift the likes of Arter and Doherty, a stern talking-to from Keane and O'Neill to Hendrick could help. But Ireland have to show up first, and that's been the hard bit.

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