As Ireland head into their final two games against Moldova and Wales, we examine five key talking points ahead of the crunch ties.
Martin O’Neill needs to Justify Contract Extension
Let’s face it, Martin O’Neill has brought us some marvellous days in recent years and is a fantastic manager. However, his negative approach against Austria and Georgia caused Ireland’s World Cup dream to dramatically plummet. Many fans blame the players but there was a identifiable structure to Ireland in those games, albeit a negative one. This has made a very promising campaign very complicated with early momentum disrupted by a cautious management.
The FAI’s decision to reward O’Neill with a contract before the end of the campaign, especially given the fact O’Neill got things so wrong in the last few games, mirrors Giovanni Trappatoni’s extension into the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Ireland and O’Neill need to approach these two games positively, something O’Neill can provide with Germany, Italy and Bosnia victims of his have a go attitude.
Moldova cannot be underestimated
This Moldova side took a 2-0 lead against what has proven to be a stubborn Georgia side. They ended up drawing 2-2. Following three heavy opening losses, the minnows have adapted a more defensive approach and won’t let Ireland breach them easily. An easy win should not be assumed, especially given Ireland’s lack of creativity and composure in front of goal in this campaign.
Shane Long and James McClean got the goals in Chisinau and O’Neill will be hoping whoever he calls upon will deliver the goals. Ireland showed Georgia too much respect in Dublin in 2016 and they cannot afford the struggles the same amount of time on the ball than other visitors to Dublin. All eyes seem to be on Cardiff on Monday but Ireland must tame Igor Dobrovolski’s men first.
Wales still a force without Bale
Irish fans fans couldn’t believe their luck when they heard Gareth Bale would miss Monday’s showdown with the Welsh. However, the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen are quality players in what is a strong Welsh outfit that function well and truly as a unit. Ireland managed to claim a draw with a depleted side when Wales came to Dublin in March. Many will feel the Boys in Green should have come away with the win, proving that this Wales side is not as special as many make them out to be.
The loss of Bale as a leader is similar to Ireland’s loss of Seamus Coleman. Ireland crumbled since their captain’s absence and the Welsh will either struggle or be driven by the Real Madrid man’s injury. He will certainly be missed in the heat of Tbilisi where locks need to be picked, but Ireland need to be wary of the other threats in a talented Welsh side.
Ireland must finally ride their luck
Ireland have been afforded plenty of breaks in this campaign, yet they have failed to make the most of them. They drew with Serbia in a close to empty away stadium with the home side missing the inspirational Nemanja Matic. They failed to score in home ties against Wales and Serbia when the visitors had men sent off for a generous portion of the game.
The Boys in Green failed to beat an uninspiring Austria side at home and drew away to a Georgia side missing seven first choice players, a fact rarely highlighted in the aftermath of their Tbilisi nightmare. Gareth Bale’s injury is the latest stroke of luck, but Ireland must make their own by performing on the pitch and taking their chances.
The dream is certainly not over
Despite some criticisms of Martin O’Neill over the last few months, he has turned this Irish side into a team that comes up with the goods when questions are asked of them. They rode their luck in the past with last minute goals against Georgia, Germany and Poland in the Euro 2016 campaign. Ireland looked out of the qualifying race for the Euro’s but came up with the necessary results (albeit results went their way), a theme that was replicated in the play off against a fancied Bosnia side and in the finals against Italy when a win was needed.
It is an Irish side full of pride that plays for the fans and although the last two rounds of qualifiers have been beyond disappointing, all is not lost. A win against Moldova will set up a winner takes all tie with a Welsh side minus Gareth Bale that struggled against a weakened Irish side, and as O’Neill’s team have shown before, anything is possible.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena